Data Visualization Is Not a Panacea

It galls me when people oversell data visualization. Data visualization combines technologies (visual representations of quantitative data) with specific skills (techniques for creating and interacting with those visual representations) to make sense of and communicate quantitative data. It does not replace the other technologies and skillsets that are also needed to derive value from quantitative data; it complements them. It contributes to solutions; it is not “the solution.”

As an expert in data visualization, I’ve never oversold it. Data visualization is extremely useful and at times essential, but it is only one of many technologies and skillsets that are needed to understand and communicate quantitative data. It enables us to see patterns and relationships in quantitative data that would be difficult or impossible to see in any other way, but it does not stand alone. To understand and present quantitative data effectively, we also need domain knowledge, statistical thinking, critical thinking, scientific thinking, systems thinking, and computer skills.

Marketing has infected us with a propensity for hype. It is no longer enough to truthfully describe what something is and does; we must exaggerate it to the point of absurdity in an effort to sell it. When we create expectations that can never be satisfied, however, we pave the road to confusion, frustration, and failure. When data visualization fails to deliver on hyperbolic promises, in what direction do the fingers of blame point? They point to data visualization rather than to the fools who misrepresent it.

If you value data visualization, you’ll do it no favors by exaggerating its role and worth. An honest assessment is all that’s needed. Data visualization is incredibly useful, but it’s not the “second coming.” Rather than tooting data visualization’s horn with the bombastic grandeur of a Wagnerian opera, demonstrate its worth by doing it well. Combine it with complementary skills and technologies to solve real problems. That’s enough. That will always be enough.

One Comment on “Data Visualization Is Not a Panacea”

By Mark Gandy. March 15th, 2020 at 9:03 am

It contributes to solutions; it is not “the solution.”

Great line – couldn’t agree more.

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