scatter example for websiteLast Thursday, 800 people spent a sunny evening in Brighton packed into the Dome Theatre to see David McCandless present on Information is Beautiful. That’s a fair sized audience for a subject I might have thought was a bit geeky. It shows there is real broad interest in new ways of looking at all the data we now have access to. Either that, or I live in a really geeky city.

David McCandless’ visualizations often contain very large amounts of data (ie “big data”) simplified into patterns that the eye can understand. The size, colour and position of shapes in front of our eyes become our means of understanding what we are seeing. For example, his attempts to visualize relative sums of money: the budget deficit versus African countries’ debt, etc. We can look up the numbers, but do we really understand how big they are and how they relate to each other?

These big data visualizations don’t show numbers themselves but are simply shapes which only mean something when it is explained what they are (there are some examples on his home page). It’s the only way of making sense of the quantity of information being shown. I’m wondering how often we do this with survey data and what the result would look like if we did. How often do we try to visualize our data as shapes on a page, and visualize large amounts of data to see what it looks like?

I’m working on ways of using the VBA programming behind PowerPoint to display large amounts of data on a single slide. Here’s an example showing over 8,000 individual data points, on an xy chart. It’s from the GP Patients Survey, which collects data on every GP practice in England. There they all are, on one PowerPoint slide.

This is work in progress but the possibilities are huge – using colour, shape and size to distinguish the points on different characteristics, and we have a whole new way of visualizing survey research in an understandable way, even down to respondent level. I’ll be developing this idea more in the next few weeks.