Visualizations of Many Variables

Underlying many of the posts on typographic visualization in this blog is the notion of visualization of many variables. Many modern visualizations only tackle a few variables beyond x,y layout. Treemaps use color and size; choropleth maps use color; tag clouds use size. Even Hans Rosling’s engaging TED talk is a bubble plot with only size, color and animation. Yes, parallel coordinate plots scale up to potentially a dozen or more variables but interactive techniques are often required to reveal the crooked path that corresponds to one particular item — it’s not feasible to do so through a mass of cluttered lines. And furthermore, most visualization techniques work with homogeneous data: not messy heterogeneous data at different scales, different entities, differing qualities and not necessarily easy ways to computationally join the disparate data together.

Tufte’s  Envisioning Data has quite a few examples of the latter; and many more variants are available on the Internet. Maps with many layers, exploded or cutaway drawings, dance notation, graphic timetables and many other kinds of detailed charts:

Bertin considered these types of visualizations graphical inventories – not for visual perception of patterns but rather a means to graphically organize a lot of related information. And so, inventory-style visualizations are not commonly used because most visualization tools are focused on the easy perception of patterns without the clutter.

But can inventory-visualizations be also used for rapid preattentive perception of patterns? At the outset they may seem cluttered, but they can still use attributes such as color to draw fast attention, and then still provide all the detailed context. Presumably this use of visualization as inventory plus preattentive highlights is already used today in real-time operational settings such as factories, pipelines and electric grids: the blinking box requires attention, but all the rich graphical detail around the blinking box indicates other assets that can be manipulated to rectify the situation. Something to consider for 2018.

About richardbrath

Richard is a long time visualization designer and researcher. Professionally, I am one of the partners of Uncharted Software Inc. I have recently completed a PhD in data visualization at LSBU. The opinions on this blog are related to my personal interests in data visualization, particularly around research interests related to my PhD work- this blog is about exploratory aspects of data visualization not proven principles.
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