« The Two Types of Data Visualisation, and Why it Matters to Understand the Difference | Main | Publishing policy papers I wrote for politicians & advisors, some regrets, and a statement about my personal politics »



Presumably this post is intended to expand on the line of thought you explained your previous post on The Two Types of Data Visualisation, and to advocate ‘answer visualisations’ over ‘story visualisations’ using the contrast between the Tube Map and TfL’s Journey Planner as an illustrative example.

The question what makes a data visualisation ‘good’ is an interesting one, and since goodness may be found in many forms perhaps it is helpful to differentiate varieties of goodness. The two I propose for consideration here are ‘useful’ and ‘interesting’.

This relates to your division into story visualisations and answer visualisations: stories are supposed to be interesting, whereas answers are supposed to be useful.

It seems to me that the Journey Planner is both more useful and less interesting than the Tube Map. More generally I think there’s a tension between the kind of stripped-down utility you’re advocating in this post, that may indeed be well-served by excising all details not germane to the task at hand, and the fascinating digressive quality of a well-designed bird’s-eye view of some complex collection of information.

The US wind map is of no use to me whatsoever, but it is delightful and fascinating. Watching the flow of air across the surface of the US raises so many questions. What are the topographic factors influencing the flow? Where are the mountains and valleys? What is the distribution of air pressure, and why? Is today typical or atypical? Where are the prevailing winds? It doesn’t provide any answers – I didn’t start with any questions that such a map would be capable of answering – but, oh, the questions! That is what makes something interesting, that it inspires questions, opening up the space of ideas rather than closing it down to a single answer.

The glory of ‘What size am I?’, of course, is that it is both useful *and* interesting. Though as it happens it is of no use to at all to me myself, because I am not a woman and I do not often buy clothes, but I love it because it exposes to me an aspect of the world of which I had previously been altogether ignorant.

If this is really what it comes down to, are we eager to stand for usefulness at the expense of interestingness? I don’t think I am.

The comments to this entry are closed.

The views on this blog's are mine - not mySociety's or anyone else's.
My Photo