With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility!

Of late, there is a lot of buzz around these words: data analytics, data intelligence, visualizations, data science and data driven decision making. Data Visualization is a very useful field of Data Science.  We could perhaps conduct fantastic data study but what use is the findings if an end-user is unable to understand it? This is where visualizations help to put things in perspective.

There are numerous articles on how data can help us.  Let me take a contrarian view in this article, to talk about how visualizations could prove counter-productive if not used the right way. I am just quoting a few instances from Fox News to drive the point where some news presenters at Fox News took the liberty of manipulating the visuals to suit their story lines. I have used Fox News Headlines to highlight three areas that could mislead the audience and they are related to data representation, perception and presentation.

Headline (on erroneous representation): Unemployment Rate has been High Throughout 2011 Under Obama’s Reign (as seen in the graph).

Data Representation
Data Representation

On a closer look, I’m made to think, “isn’t it going down?” Glancing at the graph, the reader is led to believe that the unemployment rate was the lowest at the beginning of the year and then rose steadily post that. What I see is that the graph ends on a considerably low unemployment rate at 8.6% in the month of November. Moreover, had the graph been accurate, the unemployment rate of November would have appeared to be low by a comfortable margin. The news crew was probably ready with the story before the November numbers came in!
Headline (on creating false perception):  If the Tax Cuts Expire, the Rates Could Increase Five-fold (as seen in the graph).

Data Perception
Data Perception

Having a quick look at the graph makes one believe that the tax rates would increase dramatically once the tax cuts expire. If you look closely, it’s actually a 4.6% rise on a base of 35%. Even a perfect data depiction, in a case like this, could lead to misconceptions if the other supporting channels, for example, conspire to do so.

Often times, it’s not only the accuracy of the data depiction that matters, but it’s also the backing story that goes along with the visualizations that influences how a reader infers the infographics.

Headline (on false presentation): Poll Results of 2012 Presidential Election (as seen in the graph).

Data Presentation
Data Presentation

In this case, somebody at the graphics department wanted a pie chart and they decided to represent an opinion poll in the same format! In all the fanfare surrounding aesthetics of visualisation, the ultimate objective of using the infographic is revealing the truth behind the data in simple, digestible, technically-sound and legible manner.

At Report Bee, whenever we sit with a visualization, there are three things that we keep in mind, not necessarily in the same order,

  1. Sharp focus on the purpose
  2. Readable and intelligible
  3. Aesthetics of the visualization

(P.S.: I have nothing personal against Fox News.  It just so happened that I could find anomalies easily with their media articles.)


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