This morning, in my personalized list of Google alerts, I spotted a link to a new video by PBS about data visualization. I’m a longtime, avid supporter of PBS, so I was hoping for something useful. I also knew, however, that PBS doesn’t always vet its content adequately (some of the self-help gurus that PBS features are laughable) and that it doesn’t always get the story right. So, I held my breath, hoping for the best when I followed the link to the PBS video “The Art of Data Visualization.”
My spirit rose when the video began with the words of Edward Tufte and his image filled the screen.
I nearly swooned as Tufte calmly and eloquently uttered statements such as “Style and aesthetics cannot rescue failed content” and “There are enormously beautiful visualizations, but it’s as a byproduct of the truth and the goodness of the information.” At last, I thought, a professionally made video that features the best of data visualization. Within seconds, however, I found that Tufte served only as the bookends of this video and that much of the content in between conflicted with his statements.
Here are a couple samples:
And, of course, a video about data visualization is not complete without at least one of the infamous monstrosities created by David McCandless.
I can only imagine how Tufte must have felt when he saw the final product and discovered how his statements were contradicted by much of the other content that PBS chose to include. It is because of this possibility that I turn down invitations to participate in projects like this video that don’t allow contributors to control the content. Unless you have a contract that grants you the right to review and approve the final product, great harm can be done to your reputation and you can unwittingly participate in a project that undermines your work.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if PBS or some other respected media provider decided to work closely with leaders in the field of data visualization to present it at its best and most useful? I’m betting that I could get many of my colleagues—several of the best and brightest in the field—to participate in this project with enthusiasm if we were given the right to work closely with the production team and then review and approve the final content. Perhaps we could even use Tufte’s portions of “The Art of Data Visualization,” but fill the middle with a consistent message about the true potential of data visualization to enlighten with beauty as “a byproduct of the truth and the goodness of the information.”