The power of data visualization

october 25, 2019

“You should really wonder what it is you’re not seeing”

You pay by debit card, make a reservation, order a book. You make calls, park your car, check in somewhere. You swipe and like posts. Almost everything you do leaves a digital trace or footprint behind. This is valuable data, provided of course you know what to do with it. This is what Zuyd University of Applied Sciences’ brand-new data visualization lectureship is all about. Lector Kay Schröder (photo) explains how he and his team teach students how to present data in a reliable and understandable way.

Never before has there been so much data available. Municipalities, the Province, the CBS and many other institutions are opening up their databases. Information is there for the taking, which may sound great on the surface but it's actually very problematic. This “mush” of information is incomprehensible to the average layperson. There’s too much of it, it’s too abstract, and so, in practice, it’s not always informative.

Open data

“How can we improve how we handle open data? This is one of the three themes my lectureship focuses on,” Kay Schröder says. How do you make it possible to experience all of this information? And how do you ensure you are supplying facts, and are getting the right, reliable data from this overkill of information? This is the only way you will be able to offer a well-founded opinion. “Take the climate debate, for example. Proponents and opponents cherry-pick from all of the available information, extracting only the information that best supports their position. This is not the outcome you’re hoping for. People have to be able to make an informed choice based on reliable facts. Data visualization can help you develop ways to research and present data.

Interaction between man and data

Does the data contain hidden relationships? How can you make rational decisions on that basis? Can you develop effective interaction between humans and data? These types of questions involve the interaction between people and data, the second theme covered in the Data Visualization lectureship. Kay: “Data visualization offers new opportunities to improve the accessibility of data in many data-driven processes. For example, many companies are active on social media and this provides them with a treasure trove of information. However, should you evaluate all this information the same way? To answer this, I conducted research at APG with a group of students. We found that people who responded to posts around dinnertime were more likely to be positive while the responses in the nighttime hours were predominantly negative. We have developed a new method to make thousands of posts visible at a glance. This yields different information which might cause you to make different choices than if you had just swept all of the responses into one big pile.”

The story behind the numbers

The contextualization of data is the third topic that Kay explores in his lectureship. “Data is in and of itself is not that exciting. A bar or pie chart can show more, but you actually want to tell the story behind the data, and to do so in a concise, catchy way. Data-driven storytelling is one example. In this technique, graphs become interactive representations of information. If you scroll over the graph, it will tell the story behind it. Videos and animations are other forms of data visualization that tell the story behind the numbers. This enables you to convey reliable information in a quick and accessible manner.”

Developing the region

“Technically, almost anything is possible in the field of data research,” Kay continues. “Our challenge is to match content to people the right way. In that respect, the Brightlands Smart Services Campus is the perfect place for us. There are many SMEs based here along with the CBS and financial institutions, so there are plenty of possibilities for doing applied research. This offers opportunities for the further development of the region. After all, today’s students are tomorrow’s employees.” 

Fake news and echo chambers for opinions

In an increasingly visual society, reliable data visualization is important. “You have a major responsibility when you explain data,” Kay says. “Take fake news, or the echo chambers of opinions on social media. A good explanation of data can eliminate myths based on opinions. It helps you prove that there were more terrorist attacks before the year 2000 than there are now, for example. Always realize that your perspective determines what you see, and this is why critical thinking is necessary. Always wonder what it is you aren’t seeing.”

Many students at Zuyd University of Applied Sciences, UM and the Open University are taking classes on data visualization at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus. Classes are also given to employees working at APG, the Province of Limburg and the CBS, among others. Data visualization combines three disciplines: design, psychology and ICT. 

Read more about the Human Data Interaction Lab (HDILab)
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