09 August 2013

Pretty as a picture

Talking about statistical work by nonstatisticians, recently ("Stats for the million", 14 June), I mentioned the importance in that context of graphical visualisation of data. It goes well beyond that, however.
On the one hand, fuelled by the ever-accelerating growth curve in computing power per unit of investment, visualisation has progressively moved to the core of exploratory and analytic strategies. The effects on traditional methods are profound, as separate work phases collapse into continuous cybernetic feedback loops and statisticians develop increasingly immersive relationships with their raw material. On the other, data visualisation has penetrated mainstream discourse to become an integral part of vernacular literacy – “one of the genuinely new cultural forms enabled by computing” as Lev Manovich [1, 2] describes it.
Those two aspects, the technical and the vernacular, are not separate; they are two sides of the same coin. They are beginning to interpenetrate with other developments such as direct onscreen haptic manipulation of program interfaces and may in the long run turn out to be the most far reaching and profound effect of the scientific computing revolution.
At the heart of this lies the capacity of inexpensive desktop, laptop or even handheld devices to manipulate graphics in real time response to user curiosity. When I started writing for Scientific Computing World, back in the 1990s, it was possible to represent three data variables as a scatter plot cloud, or as a fitted surface, on x, y and z axes, but changing the viewpoint or scale usually involved typing new parameters into a settings box and watching the screen progressively redraw. It seemed pretty cool, then. I remember my excitement when the major statistics packages, one by one, added the ability to grab the plot with a mouse click and intuitively apply zoom, pitch, roll and yaw by dragging. Nowadays, I can do the same on a pocket tablet or even a cellphone by simply sliding my fingers around the image itself. On a desktop, laptop or heavier tablet machine I have access to considerably more than three dimensions, not to mention different display types such as vector flows in the same visualisation as positional points, planes or volumes.
Not that such impressive psychoperceptual pyrotechnics are always necessary or even desirable in every context. Detailed 2D presentation of very traditional plots of the kind that would have been familiar to my primary school self in the late 1950s are, in many circumstances, still the best visualisations of real world situations. The miracle of current software is that those two extremes, and everything between, are available off the shelf to suit the needs of the moment. [more...]

  1. Lev Manovich, “Data visualisation as new abstraction and anti-sublime” in Small tech: the culture of digital tools, electronic mediations, B. Hawk and D.M. Rieder, Editors. 2008, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.
  2. Lev Manovich, Software takes command : extending the language of new media. International texts in critical media aesthetics.  9781623568177.
Full references list here

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