“We must have an endless commitment to finding, showing, and telling the truth”- Edward Tufte
Edward Tufte is a professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University. He is also the closest thing we’ve got to a household name in the field of information design, devoted equally to the data and its display, its function and its form. His beautiful, self-published books are loaded with rich visuals covering all sorts of graphs, charts, and maps, many historic and some new. He has worked as a consultant to NASA and The United States government, among many others. He is also an artist and has developed a sculpture park of 234 acres in Woodbury, Connecticut. He periodically gives a one-day seminar course on “Presenting Data and Information” which, though the title sounds impossibly dry, draws attendees from around the globe.
A ripple ran through the crowd as Edward Tufte, “The Leonardo da Vinci of data,” (Shapley, 1998) “The Galileo of Graphics,” (Aston, 2009) took the stage to introduce a music visualization as the opener to his seminar in Washington DC on November 6, 2017. The lights went out completely and I could no longer even see the note paper in front of me. Color bars pass on a screen, pulsing in coordination with the musical notes of a recording of Chopin, part of the Music Animation Machine by Stephen Malinowski.
But before we even got to the beautiful music, we had quiet reading time. Edward Tufte begins all of his presentations with “Study Hall” where he provides a devoted segment of silent time to read a written document, of 3-4 narrative pages, that describes the concepts and information of the materials that are about to be presented. He is known for his disdain of typical Powerpoint presentations and describes the study hall segment as the first step in a successful presentation by placing control (physically) in the hands of the audience. He is devoted to the user as the priority when setting out to provide education, evidence, and information. His position is that the viewer has the best capabilities to scan the materials for what interests them, skip what they don’t want, and have the option of holding onto the hard copy for future reference. In this way the presentation may be customized and personalized by the viewer and not just the presenter. The meeting begins by empowering the ones who are there to learn and makes them active participants right from the start, rather than passive observers. This “silent start” study hall strategy is also used by Jeff Bezos at Amazon for all company meetings as an efficiency measure that his team swears by. (Bariso, 2017) Attendees have time first to learn and time to think, and then to be more engaged in the meeting.
Tufte describes the Powerpoint presentation as “stacked in time.” The concepts and data are dribbled out over time and there is no way for the audience to gather the whole in a cohesive context. It may be the easiest to create and show, but it is not the best way to clearly and accurately inform the viewer. When a presenter subjects his/her viewers to the passive experience of sitting through the traditional Powerpoint slide deck, they are entirely at the mercy of the presenter’s pace and choices. “For all of the disruption we have seen from the tech industry, there is a complete lack of creativity.” (Tufekci, 2017) Powerpoint has enjoyed the default presentation position for years. Tufte compares it to voicemail menus where a listener must wait through a list of options to find out what to press–another interface that is stacked in time and inconvenient for the audience. A “focus on the person… a shift towards a ‘person-centred’ approach, rather than a ‘system-centred’ approach. This has been accompanied by a switch from quantitative methods to qualitative methods.” (Wilson, 2000) Tufte very decisively advocates for a human- and user-centered process, that addresses quantitative and qualitative measures, when sharing data and presenting information.
Besides the study hall beginning, Tufte describes the optimal way for users to consume information as “adjacent in space.” Using methods that allow the integration of different types of data–numbers, words, pictures, etc. in the same space creates context for a richer, comprehensive understanding. He shared Charles Joseph Minard’s data map tracking the French invasion of Russia in 1812. The visual creates a rich story by including numbers of troops lost, over time, as it relates to deployments, the terrain, and the weather. It provides lots of context to explain the devastating loss of life due to multiple factors. “Taking context seriously means finding oneself in the thick of the complexities of particular situations at particular times with particular individuals.” (Nardi, 1996, p35)
Tufte had plenty of jabs for 3-D pie charts, drop shadows, bright colors, and “datajunk.” His directive is to first consider the data that you must convey, leave as much information intact as possible, and present it in as clear and uncluttered a format as possible. Visual clutter is the signature of the designer, the coder, the editor, and will only impede the learning process for the viewer. Just as Lessig describes his concept of Open Evolution as it relates to coding: “Build a platform, or set of protocols, so that it can evolve in any number of ways; don’t play god; don’t hardwire any single path of development; don’t build into it a middle that can meddle with its use” (Lessig, 1999, p110), Tufte is a strong proponent of keeping as much of the data itself available for the audience to interpret for themselves. There is no such thing as information overload, only bad design.
“Evidence is evidence, whether words, numbers, images, diagrams, still or moving. It is all information after all. For readers and viewers, the intellectual task remains constant regardless of the particular mode of evidence: to understand and to reason about the materials at hand, and to appraise their quality, relevance, and integrity.” (Tufte, 2006, p83)
The more data that is there, the more accurate and believable it will be. He raises significant concern around integrity in data analysis. Specifically, in the process of selecting data, he recognizes the broad practice of “cherry picking and lemon dropping” data to suit one’s biases. Akin to James Moor’s Invisibility Factor in computer calculations: “Answers chosen will build certain values into the program…This becomes a significant ethical issue as the consequences grow in importance.” (Moor, 1985, p274) Gathering data appropriately and then showing it accurately takes skill and mindful discipline. Many data visualizations can skew the viewer’s understanding simply by using larger font sizes for some bullet points–and the more important the data, the higher the stakes. Tufte shared a presentation from his evaluation of the Space Shuttle Columbia flight that imparted information in a way that led to dangerous decisions and ultimately may have contributed to the loss of life for 7 crew members. The Powerpoint format was too simple, inappropriately edited, and did not show the important, complex data that needed to be considered. He argues the world is complex and multi-variate and we must display the data to encompass this. Don’t dumb it down–have faith in the viewer.
Tufte warns us all, as creators and as users, to question the data we see and to think carefully about the relationship between the evidence and the conclusion. Start with an open question and do the research. Taking data from one project and appropriating it to something else will often lead to inaccuracy. Every step, from how the data is collected (is the scientist paddling over to a cleaner area of the lake to gather his sample for water pollutants?) to how the designer lays it out (are they removing some data to make it fit nicely in their grid?) is suspect. “In the political and philosophical sense in which I use the term here, neutrality is impossible. In any situation, there exists a distribution of power.” (Jensen, 2006, p91) He also urges us to question our own biases and to cultivate self-awareness about what we see.
Tufte urges us to always assume equality across a room. Give every idea a chance. Meet the challenge to see things in a neutral way rather than through the lens of our own bias. Always source alternative and divergent views. Create the environment for truth to be sought and revealed.
The last visual of Tufte’s talk asked:
How do they know that?
How do you know that?
How do I know that?
“When we turn over the provision of knowledge to others, we are left vulnerable to their choices, methods, and subjectivities. Sometimes this is a positive, providing expertise, editorial acumen, refined taste. But we are also wary of the intervention, of human failings and vested interests, and find ourselves with only secondary mechanisms of social trust by which to vouch for what is true and relevant.” (Gillespie, 2014, p187)
In the field of data analysis and visualization we must be accurate with sources, provide more than less information, and show it in the most logical and digestible way to our viewers. Ultimately we are seeking the truth, which Edward Tufte proselytizes can be found through evidence. If the evidence is shown properly, the right conclusion will be found.
Aston, Adam (June 10, 2009) “Tufte’s Invisible Yet Ubiquitous Influence” Bloomberg.com https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2009-06-10/tuftes-invisible-yet-ubiquitous-influencebusinessweek-business-news-stock-market-and-financial-advice (retrieved on November 9, 2017)
Bariso, Justin (2017) “Silent Start: The Brilliant and Surprising Meeting Method I learned from Jeff Bezos,” Inc.com. https://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/amazons-jeff-bezos-uses-a-brilliant-and-surprising.html (retrieved on November 9, 2017)
Gillespie T. (2014), “The relevance of algorithms” in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, eds. T. Gillespie, P. Boczkowski, and K. Foot. Cambridge: MIT Press, 167–194. http://www.tarletongillespie.org/essays/ Gillespie%20-%20The%20Relevance%20of%20Algorithms.pdf with Shapin, Steven. 1995. “Trust, honesty, and the authority of science.” In Society’s Choices: Social and Ethical Decision Making in Biomedicine.
Jensen, R. (2006). “The myth of the neutral professional” in Questioning Library Neutrality, ed. A. Lewis. Library Juice, 89–96.
Lessig, L. (1999). “Open code and open societies: values of internet governance,” Chicago-Kent Law Review 74, 101–116. http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/works/lessig/ final.PDF.
Moor, J. H. (1985). “What is computer ethics?” Metaphilosophy 16(4): 266–275.
Nardi, B.A. (1996). “Studying context: a comparison of activity theory, situated action models and distributed cognition” in Nardi, B. (ed.) Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction. MIT Press.
Shapley, Deborah (March 30, 1998) “The da Vinci of Data” The New York Times. (retrieved on November 11, 2017)
Tufekci, Zeynep (Nov 2, 2017) Confronting Surveillance Capitalism with Zeynep Tufekci, Civic Hall, New York City event.
Tufte, Edward (2006). Beautiful Evidence: 83-127.
Wilson, T. D. (2000). “Human information behavior.” Informing Science 3(2): 35.
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