Data – the big picture

Dave Reeder, Editorial Director, CPI

In the modern world, data overwhelms us. The power of numbers seems, more than anything, else the power to confuse us. On a simplistic level, why do we respond so strongly to a price of 499x rather than 500x – the difference is minimal but our perception of the saving overwhelms our intellectual grasp of the reality.

It was partly this confusion that led journalist David McCandless down a new path. “I was just confused about numbers – big numbers – and, perhaps more than that, really frustrated,” he recalls.

Part of what got him started was the $100m issue. The figure seemed to crop up all the time in news reports, tied in to much higher figures. For example, government expenditure might be announced of $320b alongside $100m savings. “And your reaction is, ‘Oh look, they made significant savings’. But I just couldn’t get my head around the figures – they didn’t make sense to me. And it’s not just me – we all have a problem understanding the scale of numbers.”

So he developed a passion for visualising information and data – examples can be found on his fascinating Web site,

But he does more than just visualise. As he explains, “unless you’re making connections with the numbers, you’re only telling half the story”, so he uses design to make complex ideas very easy to grasp. “What we have,” he believes, “is a complexity threshhold. Some stories can’t be distilled to a visual representation, but unless you hook in a narrative then you’re not telling the story properly.”

How relevant is this to business? He admits that it’s not “a magic bullet” but argues that “a lot of organisations can’t see themselves properly”, so that a lot of contracted work he does is helping organisations understand their internal and external relations.

However, in an industry where we deal with data continuously, any way of looking at it differently is bound to change the effectiveness with which we operate.

Consider basic data orders of magniture. Most of us understand that a kilobyte represents a single sheet of single-spaced typewritten paper, but how much information is a terabyte in terms a non-technical person can understand? Just under 200 hours of music is a handy approximation. Given that AT&T transfers 19 petabytes of data every day, how much is a petabyte? Try visualising a 32 year-long MP3 file.

And now we have to grapple with exabytes (50,000 years of DVD quality video) and the zettabyte (1,000 exabytes). Global data is already past that landmark order of magniture!

But think how much easier it would be to grasp these relationships in terms of a simple visual graphic – say piles of paper representing the gradations.

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