Beverly McLeod, Tufte and the World Visualized

Beverly McLeod

Beverly McLeod, PhD, MLIS was one of the winners of NCNMLG’s professional development grant. One of the requirements for the winners is to report on their continuing education experience. She looks at the world of information visualization, and shares her experience of attending a session by the vis maestro Edward Tufte.

Beverly currently serves as the Library Services Manager, Health Sciences Library.  Kaiser Permanente Antioch Medical Center. 

Statistics = Boring? Meet Edward Tufte!
By: Beverly McLeod: Bio

In early December I had the privilege of attending a one-day course titled Presenting Data and Information, taught by information visualization guru Edward Tufte, who has been called “The Leonardo da Vinci of data” by The New York Times and “The Galileo of graphics” by Business Week. Although Tufte’s training was in statistics, and his academic career focused on political science and public policy, he is best known for his work on displaying quantitative data in rich visual formats that are easy for the viewer to understand.
A fierce critic of the sequential, information-impoverished PowerPoint format as a means for conveying information, Tufte advocates instead a “high-resolution data dump” that presents all of the information on a single flat surface—either a computer screen or an “old-school” piece of paper. Both formats allow for the meaningful integration of words, numbers, tables, graphics, photos, etc., and enable the viewer to individualize learning by concentrating on parts of the display with personal relevance.
Successful presentations support the purpose of an information display, which is to assist thinking about particular problems. You will know that you have produced a good data display, says Tufte, when everyone in your audience is intently looking at it and talking to their neighbor about it, and when people are focusing on different parts of it.
This is exactly what happened during the course when Tufte showed The Genealogy of Pop/Rock Music (http://www.historyshots.com/rockmusic/index.cfm). And that wasn’t all—a few minutes later, you could see mouths drop open when he showed an enhanced version of the graphic on an iPad. As he touched an artist’s name on the screen, it brought up a snippet of the musician singing a signature song, creating an impressive interactive and multi-sensory experience.
The curricula of library science degree programs are beginning to include the subject of the visualization of information; several schools now offer such courses. Tufte commented that, because of technical advances that enable more seamless, intuitive screen navigation, the future of computer interface design IS information design—and who better to design information than librarians?
A wealth of ideas can be found at Tufte’s website (www.edwardtufte.com/tufte), especially in the extensive forums — ET Notebooks — on various topics, which often include examples of how people have transformed numbers into visual displays. The medical data threads (Cancer survival rates: tables, graphs) are particularly interesting examples of redesigning information to make it more comprehensible and user-friendly. Given the prominence of numerical data in the institutions that medical librarians support, there are many opportunities for us to help our clients communicate information more effectively by making statistics interesting instead of boring.

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