Visualization Should Be More Than a Pretty Face

We are in an era in which data visualization, infographics and maps are all the rage. For the most part, if you want something to get noticed, it has to be visual. In fact, it has to not only be visual, but be eye-catching, interesting, pretty, unique and come with an awe factor.

A new global wind map called Earth by software engineer Cameron Beccario meets all of those criteria. The interactive map of near real-time wind speeds is stunningly beautiful and just short of hypnotic. Effortless navigation allows users to examine wind velocity around the globe at varying heights, combined with the ability to zoom and pan with ease. Seamless rendering and animation provides an aesthetically appealing and information-rich experience.

The animation below shows wind speeds near the North Pole at different heights. It is evident that at lower heights the wind speeds are less intense (shown in yellow and green) but pick up drastically at higher altitudes (shown in pink, purple, red).

earth
Click the visualization above to see it in action!

 

This undeniably impressive visualization has been picked up by numerous news outlets (Huffington PostAtlantic Cities, Slate and Washington Post), organizations (United Nations World Meteorology Organization and United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction), blogs and countless Twitter users. Given that it meets or exceeds the aforementioned criteria for getting noticed, the coverage comes as no real surprise.

But, I have to wonder if the visual era we are in has caused people to focus too heavily on aesthetics and not enough on the responsibility that comes with publicly displaying data. With all the positives this visualization has going for it, it saddens me that there is no legend accompanying the map. The meaning of each color has to be inferred by the user. And while data sources are cited, there is no real discussion of methodologies used or a good description of what the map can tell us. The most we get as a description is, “a visualization of global weather conditions forecast by supercomputers updated every three hours.” Without these critical components, it is difficult for the average user to make sense of the data being displayed and therefore limits its utility. While it’s easy to be wowed by visuals, the “data” part of data visualization is just as important.

Visual Insight is a monthly blog series focusing on mapping and data visualizations. To read last month’s post, click here.

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