Saturday, August 20, 2011

Electric Rain

"Information gently but relentlessly drizzles down on us in an invisible, impalpable electric rain."  This is how physicist Hans Christian von Baeyer starts his engaging book Information: The New Language of Science (2005).  Engineering is entering the global data-inundated era - - with a cultural shift from quality to quantity.  Engineering will need new tools for truly informing experiences.

One tool is visualization.  Visualization will become an imperative not solely as a response to the growing surge of data, but also as a supporting mechanism to the various political, economic, engineering, cultural, sociological, and technological advances shaping the coming years.  This is more than simply numbers.  Given the quantity of data available - - learning to present the data with visual representations that allow your team and stakeholders to see the unexpected.  Engineers need to be comfortable with the different sources and effective formats for presentations; be able to experiment with and compare different visualization tools; and have the ability to look for trends and patterns in your data and select appropriate ways to chart them.

Seeing the world in data involves three main areas:
  1. Data Collection - - Mobile technology and GPS drive the ease and adaption of this element.  Pictures and text messages on a whim with increasing connectivity.  Look for data collection to fall into two camps.  Some data flows are self-updating and automatic (in the future this will be be the dominate form).  Others are manual and involve more active collection procedures (the technology cost curve will always beat the labor cost curve).  The mobile phone will be the platform of choice for data collection.
  2. Analysis - - Once you have it, what do you do with it?  New algorithms and traditional statistical techniques will help locate the useful points in the data - - visualization will help tell the stories.  Our brains are great at finding patterns, but when we have gigabytes or terabytes of information, it is easy to see how important details could be missed.
  3. Interaction - - This is the visualization element.  Engineering needs to embrace the new world of visualization - - some artistic, some analytical, and others in between.  Although not everyone who "analyzes" this data will have a background in the proper techniques, a certain level of data literacy must be developed.  Visualization will be essential in making the data more accessible.

Several good reads on the subject.  I am currently reading - - Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics by Nathan Yau (he also has a great website at and Visual Complexity: Mapping Pattens of Information by Manuel Lima.

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