What is Data Visualization and Why is it Important?

Chris Pittenturf, VP-Data & Analytics, Palace Sports & Entertainment
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Chris Pittenturf, VP-Data & Analytics, Palace Sports & Entertainment

Do you know the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”? That statement has never been more accurate than in reference to a well thought out data visualization! In its simplest terms data visualization is the attempt to take information from a text format and present it in a picture, and it can be as simple as a graph or chart. It should engage the visual senses of the reviewer in both its presentation and content. Good data visualization is truly like a work of art!

"Data Visualization has become an indispensable part of the business world and an ever increasing part of managing our daily life"

Effective data visualization should be informative, efficient, appealing, and in some cases interactive and predictive.

Informative: The most basic function of a report is to inform the consumer of something and a picture can do this in a universal way. Think of a map, perhaps the oldest form of data visualization, or a pie chart, or a bar graph. Everyone is familiar with these visuals and can quickly infer the intended point they represent. Since we are aggregating data and displaying it pictorially it should communicate the message that the aggregated data is telling us and not further compound the problem that large amounts of data can present.

Efficient: Perhaps the biggest benefit of utilizing data visualizations is the efficiency gained through proper execution. A well designed visual will save the data analyst precious time as it can communicate the message of the data concisely and without ambiguity. It should bring the consumer to a clear conclusion quickly without having to analyze pages of data. This is why data visualization dashboards are so indispensable for busy executives, many of which make decisions daily on how to run their business based upon information contained in a few well designed, concise, dashboards.

Appealing: Much like a masterpiece draws the viewer in and captivates their thoughts as they gaze at the picture, properly designed data visualizations will draw you in and lead you to the intended conclusion in a visually pleasing way. The proper imagery and color palette can bring a boring spreadsheet to life. I’ve seen firsthand colleagues’ eyes glaze over as a spreadsheet is presented to the group. Conversely, you present the same data to the same group with a compelling visualization and they lean forward and become engaged in the analysis of the information presented.

Interactive and Predictive: Some dashboard visualizations are created to be analytical tools. They contain variables and filters that can be adjusted based upon possible results to infer what could be expected if certain criteria are met. The genius in these projects occurs in the design and setup that allows for quick analysis of data by the business user.

The emergence of a society interested in, and driven by data has created a premium for quality, engaging data visualization. It has become somewhat of a buzzword in today’s business world, although not on the same level as the “Internet of Things”, “Business Intelligence”, “Cloud Computing”, or even “Gamification”. Its importance and pervasiveness is evident when you consider that it is interwoven into all of those aforementioned topics. Even so, it carries some cache on its own and is a key component of another popular topic, “Big Data”.

Using “Big Data” as an example, in business there seems to be an ever increasing desire to capture and consume as much data as possible regardless of whether we know what we are going to do with it or why it is valuable. The term is occasionally used in reference to the amount of information, but more importantly in regards to the unstructured nature and disparity of it. That notion crystallizes the need to connect and communicate information in a more efficient manner than a spreadsheet or report ever could. Sure summaries or KPI’s can capture the essence of this data, but the magic comes when it is connected and dimensionalized over time to communicate trends concisely in a chart or graph. Never mind the fact that copious amounts of information recorded over years can be summarized succinctly in a visually appealing report that people can understand without having to dissect and analyze in depth the underlying data.

Even in the consumer space, or our day to day life, we are constantly consuming data visualizations without really noticing. Chances are, the energy bill you received in the mail yesterday has a bar graph in it picturing your energy consumption over the past 12 months or your quarterly investment statement, complete with pie graphs, communicating your investment allocation alongside of those KPI’s! Ask yourself this, where did your eyes go first? Ok, if it was the bill, maybe the due amount, but most likely you were instantly drawn to the graph and gazed at it for a moment to analyze the meaning before reading further. In the case of the investment statement, you may not have gone much further than the percentage increase over the last period and the pie chart depicting your investment allocation. All of this to say that data visualizations have become an indispensable part of the business world and an ever increasing part of managing our day to day life in our sophisticated digital age!.

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