I was invited to speak at a recent TEDx event in Berkeley, but I withdrew late in the game when the TED folks asked me to sign a contract that would have given them the right to edit my talk however they wished without my permission. This is something that I never allow, because I’ve learned the hard way that even people with good intentions can screw things up by making bad edits. I’m writing today, not to talk about the rights of content creators to their work, but about the theme of this TEDx event, which struck me as misguided. I and the other speakers were asked to tie our talks to the theme “Doing the Unprecedented.” When I received this request from the event coordinator (TED calls them “curators”), I told her that I would tie my talk to this theme by making the case that doing the unprecedented is highly overrated.
Most of what we can do to make the world a better place involves, not doing the unprecedented, but doing what matters and what works, whether unprecedented or not. This might not be as exciting as the unprecedented, but it’s desperately needed. I believe that too many opportunities are wasted because we glorify the unprecedented for its own sake.
In the United States over 150,000 people die each year due to post-surgical complications. That’s three times the number of traffic fatalities. What makes this even more shocking, however, is the fact that half of these post-surgical deaths could have been prevented, not by doing the unprecedented, but by doing what medical professionals already know, but often fail to do.
Many of these surgical failures are caused by the complexity of the work. When tasks are complex and you’re working under stress amidst distractions, it’s hard to remember everything that should be done. A movement is now underway to solve this problem, which involves nothing unprecedented, but something that another highly skilled group of professionals—pilots—have been doing for many years. Surgical teams are beginning to use checklists.
Atul Gawande, who led the effort to create this surgical safety checklist for the World Health Organization, writes convincingly about the need for checklists in all professions that deal with complexity in his new book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.
In the field of data visualization, failures are more common today than successes, not due to complexity, but to the fact that few people have been trained in the simple principles and practices of graph design. As a result, they rely on software tools to do the work for them and most of those tools lead them astray, encouraging them to produce silly, useless displays like this.
This is a travesty, because we are living at a time when we could be making tremendous use of data to inform better decisions, and most of the rules for doing this well have been known for years.
Here’s an example of one of the earliest quantitative graphs, hand drawn by William Playfair in 1786. In his time, Playfair did the unprecedented by inventing or greatly improving many of the quantitative graphs that we use today.
Back in 1983, Edward Tufte published his first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, in response to the problem of ineffectively designed graphs. And yet, despite Tufte’s efforts, plus my own and the work of several others since, it appears that graphical communication skills in general might actually be declining. Problems like this silly pie chart on Fox News, which adds up to 193%, are far too common.
When did we lose sight of the fact that data displays are about data, expressed clearly, accurately, simply, and meaningfully? When did Business Intelligence (BI) take a wrong turn down the path to business stupidity? In our efforts to do the unprecedented, to make ourselves look impressive by decorating our data in impoverishing ways, we’ve adopted practices that make us dumb. Most of the principles for doing this right have been known for a long time. Let’s save the unprecedented for situations that demand it. For most data sense-making and presentation, let’s do what’s needed and what works.