A Visualization is Worth a Thousand Words - InformationWeek

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5/7/2008
06:05 PM
Seth Grimes
Seth Grimes
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A Visualization is Worth a Thousand Words

The New York Times publishes exceptional visualizations. A couple this week stand out: "All of Inflation's Little Parts," graphing the average American's spending by category, and a map of the human "diseasome" that supports the article, "Redefining Disease, Genes and All." What distinguishes these visualizations is their success at communicating relationships along multiple data dimensions.

The New York Times publishes exceptional visualizations. A couple this week stand out: All of Inflation's Little Parts, graphing the average American's spending by category, and a map of the human "diseasome" that supports the article, Redefining Disease, Genes and All.

What distinguishes these visualizations — the first is a form of treemap, a "space-constrained visualization of hierarchies," and the second a network-connectivity diagram — is their success at communicating relationships along multiple data dimensions.A comment posted to the information aesthetics blog notes that the Times's spending image is credited to Michael Balzer, University of Konstanz (Germany), who describes treemap tiling with "arbitrary polygons that are advantageous with respect to the aspect ratio between width and height of the objects and the identification of boundaries between and within the hierarchy levels in the treemap." The adaptive shapes better suit the data than conventional treemap rectangles would, and the classification of spending by major categories is a definite improvement on simply ordering the elements in each level of the hierarchy by size.

I especially like the "diseasome" image, which clusters diseases so that "tight groupings hint at similar genetic origins." The connection between diseases is determined by shared genes, with additional dimensions, the number of genes associated with a disease and the type of disease, indicated by the size of the circle that represents a disease or disorder and the color of the circle, respectively.

The name of only one disease-linking gene is given — ACE is associated with both diabetes and Alzheimer's — which is a pity, but the graphic is already information dense. Nor are the gene names given in the on-line version of the graphic; interactivity is limited to a magnifying-glass tool that allows you to zoom in on portions of the image. They could have been provided on-line, and capabilities such as ability to recluster the image by disease type, and to visualize additional information such as rate of incidence, which would be possible with an interactive, on-line visualization, would also have been welcome.

I'm part of the shrinking segment of Americans who read a print newspaper daily, two actually. Eventually environmental concerns will overcome my affinity for paper, abetted by changing news-delivery values. In particular, news outlets such as the Times are already publishing round-the-clock, shedding the constraints of waiting for a press run, and they're using their Web sites to allow their reporters staff to comment on and provide background material for their work. It's becoming clearer that paper is holding news delivery back in other ways. Specifically, paper limits the complexity, the richness, of the presentation of information in non-narrative form. And if you're publishing on paper, you can't go far in the direction of allowing on-line readers to interact with that information. I'm about ready to admit that the Web isn't just another outlet for newspapers; it's becoming better than print.The New York Times publishes exceptional visualizations. A couple this week stand out: "All of Inflation's Little Parts," graphing the average American's spending by category, and a map of the human "diseasome" that supports the article, "Redefining Disease, Genes and All." What distinguishes these visualizations is their success at communicating relationships along multiple data dimensions.

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