Friday, October 19, 2012

A Voice from the Wilderness and the Tufte Course

Even if I don't have much to show here over the last few months, it's been a busy time of things with data viz and Excel for me. Time to catch up, don't you think?

I want to start with July, when I had the opportunity to attend a workshop by Edward Tufte---the godfather of data visualization. Business types probably don't blink at a $380 fee for a one-day course, but for someone who works in education, I was a bit worried about the cost. I looked around online for reviews of his presentations. Surely someone had attended one and blogged about it, right? But my Google Fu was weak and I didn't find one. Robert Kosara (a/k/a Eager Eyes) attended the same day I did and has posted an excellent review. I agree with many of his observations, but I also have a few notes of my own to share.

I didn't expect to be in a room with 600 people. (You don't have to bust out your spreadsheet to immediately understand that Tufte is making some serious bank with these tours.) A room this size makes the presenter more remote in some ways---you know there is no hope of any sort of personal connection. This made it all the more interesting that Tufte started the day with a little speech about how presentation is a moral act and his philosophy as a presenter. I kinda liked this idea. For years, I included my philosophy of grading as part of a syllabus, but I admit that I never really talked with students about how I see my role as a teacher (or how they saw themselves as learners...let alone how we viewed one another). While he spoke, this video played on the screen:

A lovely visual to start the day.

The rest of the day was organized around various pieces of text from his books and other videos. Tufte is very anti-presentation software...and while he called out PowerPoint in particular, there was nothing in his comments that wouldn't have applied to Keynote or Prezi. His rejection was not so much about its misuse/abuse, but rather that paper is superior because it has a higher resolution than a screen and you can include more information in a smaller space. I agree---but I also think there is room for both. They have different purposes for communication.

One of the points Tufte made throughout the day is that the onus of understanding is on the viewer. I think this is an intriguing that seems at odds with one of the primary purposes of data visualization. I understand the reason behind making visualizations interactive and engaging for the audience, but unless you are certain about the level of data literacy they have, leaving interpretation completely open is asking for problems.

I was disappointed in a few parts of the "workshop." One was a 30-minute commercial for his other pursuits just before lunch and another was a 45-minute discussion of big data after lunch. I felt like the former was uncalled for (dude, you already have our money) and the second seemed out of place and a bit misguided (again, assuming that the audience for data is literate about research methodology and data in general).

Am I glad I went to the workshop? Yes---not so much for the information given, but because hearing from the original person about their own ideas provides a context you can't get anywhere else. Doesn't mean I liked or agreed with everything I heard, just that my understanding has been fleshed out. Would I go again? Probably not. Presentation quality was not good and nothing new was brought to the table. Perhaps he doesn't think he owes his audience the effort---people will buy his stuff and elevate his work regardless of what he does in a workshop. But I find that disappointing.

This experience didn't stop me from going to see another guru a couple of weeks ago: Stephen Few. More on that to come.