Monday, February 12, 2007

Change Over Time: First Principles Revisted

I am enjoying reading Edward Tufte's new book: Beautiful Evidence. It's the fourth in a series of wonderful Tufte volumes that exemplify the power of visual display and it certainly lives up to its title. Beautiful Evidence, like its predecessors, is simply a beautiful and inspiring work - blending art and science and philosophy and the linkages between numeric data and their visual representations into a unifying whole.

Tufte is powerfully interested in the underlying principles. For example, here's a brief passage from his introduction to Beautiful Evidence:
Evidence is evidence, whether words, numbers, images, diagrams, still or moving. The intellectual tasks remain constant regardless of the mode of evidence: to understand and to reason about the materials at hand, and to appraise their quality, relevance, and integrity.

... The point of evidence displays is to assist the thinking of the producer and consumer alike. Evidence presentations should be created in accord with the common analytical tasks at hand, which usually involve understanding causality, making multivariate comparisons, examining relevant evidence, and assessing the credibility of evidence and conclusions.
This blog is especially concerned with a particular kind of evidence: multi-dimensional time series. We are surely interested in the underlying intellectual and analytical tasks including understanding causality, making comparisons, and cross checking conclusions.

"Beauty" on the other hand, plays a much smaller role in our efforts. It is always a delight when it makes one of its rare appearances for us, but is not a primary or even a secondary goal. In fact, many of the approaches we recommend in order to meet our primary mission by their very nature tend to lead away from beauty.

Reading Tufte always encourages me to take a step back and think about the first principles that are the foundation of the work of this blog. I want to think through and examine all that his approach has in common with the work shown in this blog and all the ways we might differ.

Here are some further thoughts about the first principles that are the basis of my continuing work with the visualization of time series data (with special emphasis today on the principles that might mitigate against "beauty").
  1. Time is of the essence - both analyst time and viewer time. While making comparisons and searching for understanding and seeking out properties of the data that have never before been seen, we will give preference to those approaches that help speed up the work of the analyst, even if some or a lot of beauty must be sacrificed.
  2. Following Covey, we seek first to understand the data and then to present our findings in ways that make it easiest and quickest for others to understand.
  3. Sharing the data in a readily accessible and readily reusable form along with the presentation of any findings is perhaps the core principle of our work. It's the one that allows for collaboration and for a rapid and multi-step search for meaning.
  4. We aim to make both the data and whatever graphical representations we create accessible to experts and non-experts alike.
  5. We care deeply about practical tools that allow ordinary citizens to participate in this work of comparison and understanding.
  6. We believe in many eyes, many hands, many voices working together on the path of mutual discovery (rather than the idea of a single expert figuring it all out and presenting it to us in final form).
  7. We want to apply this approach to the most important, practical, everyday problems that we face. We want this approach to help dramatically improve decision making. And we want this to happen in near real time.
For example, in hindsight, the famous Napoleon' March graphic that Tufte has written extensively about is certainly a beautiful and powerful display that promotes understanding of what happened to Napoleon's army on the way to Russia and back. But of course, it was not available in time to help Napoleon make better decisions. What we are interested in is figuring out ways in which such powerful understanding might be made available soon enough (in near real time) to actually be of use to the decisions makers and to ordinary citizens as complicated and important events are unfolding. Our recent series of posts about the key indicators at work that help us understand how things are going in Iraq is a step in that direction.

To sum up, in our approach, if we have to chose, we will chose timeliness, usefulness, ready re-usability, accessibility to the ordinary citizen, tools that are available here and now, and the ability to collaborate over beauty every time.

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