Monday, April 5, 2010

Minister of Information

A book entitled "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information" by someone named Edward Tufte somehow landed on my desk in the middle 1980s and in a way it changed if not my whole life, at least a lot of my perceptions about the use of statistics and graphic images to convince, to propagandize, to beguile or simply to explain with balance and clarity what is really going on out there in the real world. And the indomitable author is still hard at it. Challenge yourself graphically. Read on.

Everyone knows that statistics (can) lie, and certainly for those of us who are interested in public policy and communications it is important we have a sophisticated understanding of what this is all about. That book, The Visual Display, was by a professor at Yale University, who at the time had an interesting collection of departmental affiliations, which as I recall included statistics, computer science, political science and . . . graphics and design. An unusual combination for sure, and if you can start to familiarize yourself with his work, you will never regret that you opened those first pages.

I hope that this interview, which appeared two weeks ago in "On the Media", a program of National Public Radio in the United States will make you curious to know more about Tufte and his work. Let me enthusiastically recommend his 1990 book "Envisioning Information", and for the rest you will find out pretty much everything you would need to know in terms of his publications from Google and Wikipedia. For my part I have just ordered his latest, "Beautiful Evidence" (Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press. ISBN 0961392177).

One interesting aspect of his work that I discovered years ago was that when it was time to publish his first major work (Visual Display), he was so concerned about the quality of the graphic presentations that, after numerous discussions with publishers, he decided to go back home and start his own publishing house, Graphics Press. This scrupulous attention to detail says something very important about the author. Let's listen to the professor in interview for a few minutes.

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Minister of Information


You can listen to the interview here:

Edward Tufte is perhaps the country's foremost evangelist for the clean, clear and rich presentation of complex information. The Obama administration's stimulus package is flooding the economy with 787 billion dollars for employment and public works projects. Put the two together, as Obama did earlier this month when he nominated Tufte for the stimulus advisory board with the hopes that the public will have a fighting chance of understanding where the stimulus money went and what it's doing.

The Obama administration’s stimulus package is pumping 787 billion dollars into the U.S. economy for public works, job creation and, yes, national broadband access. But showing exactly where that money is going is a Herculean task.

Earlier this month, the White House appointed Edward Tufte to the Recovery, Accountability and Transparency Board to make sure the website does the job. You may not have heard of Tufte, but you've probably reaped the benefits of his work. A long-time Yale professor, author, consultant and data designer, Tufte has inspired a generation of innovators with his ideas for the efficient, clean and rich presentation of information.

He’s a fan of The New York Times website, the iPhone and, most of all, the lowly sports page, with its tables and stats a reader can grasp in an instant.

But he’s in a constant war with the average website, cluttered with scroll bars, logos, jargon and meaningless graphics.

EDWARD TUFTE: They make the simple complex [LAUGHS]. The design hand in there is from the marketing department, and it’s unfortunate because our eye-brain system is so powerful, in one long glance, maybe a 12-second glance at something, probably 120 megabits of information goes to our brain. And there’s no reason we have to be looking at impoverished materials because we process material at enormous rates.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so come now to your White House appointment, which is kind of a tough nut.


BOB GARFIELD: The data among different agencies doesn't necessarily conform. They have different ways of measuring appropriations and expenditures, and it’s really hard to get a fix. There’s not only apples and oranges, but there’s grapefruits and strawberries and kumquats out there. What’s a graphics guru to do?

EDWARD TUFTE: Probably the first thing that most people do when they go to the website is they type in their zip code, and up pops up all the stimulus projects in their area. And what's interesting about this, it’s a huge database and the particular viewer has no interest in 99 percent of it, but via the zip code they can make it special for them, as can everybody else.

BOB GARFIELD: You know, I spent a little time recently on, and to me, you know, it doesn't look bad at all. It looks like a particularly good explainer section put together by a particularly good newspaper. You know, I think that it does a pretty good job of directing me to the larger picture and also the one in my own backyard.

EDWARD TUFTE: Terrific, that’s great.


BOB GARFIELD: When you look at, do you just see a thousand problems to be solved that I'm not seeing?

EDWARD TUFTE: What I would most like to do is to make some additional things that are worthy of the zip code map and the data. One idea that I've been thinking of is called a flashlight map, and so you see a kind of dark blue United States with nothing on it, and then the dots, the little lights come on as each project started. That shows the spatial distribution, over time, of the stimulus projects.

I love that you picked up the metaphor that it was like a newspaper. The first thing I said about a year ago when I met with them for the first time is that their model should be a first-rate news website.

BOB GARFIELD: Ah-ha, so the reason I'm not seeing so much to find fault with is ‘cause you've already been tinkering with this for months before your official appointment.

EDWARD TUFTE: Once we got the news metaphor and got the intense mapping, that’s halfway there. I wouldn't give it an A yet. There’s, you know, still a ways to go, and I know some of them, and I hope to, you know, find a few more.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so is looking pretty good. You have achieved some of the clarity that you’re looking for. Other government agencies are just woeful, I mean, woeful.

EDWARD TUFTE: Yeah, the Fed’s websites are not very good. The great dream of this – I think there’s one chance in ten that it might happen – is that would become a model for all government funding, so we're now talking trillions, not this piddly 787 billion. [LAUGHS]

BOB GARFIELD: As the reporting of data becomes a more effective way for the government to communicate what it’s up to, it seems to me also an opportunity for the politicians in the administration to go, huh, why can't we use this as a really powerful political tool and skew the very data that you’re trying to clarify?

EDWARD TUFTE: This is not going to be a propaganda engine of – no - –


BOB GARFIELD: Let me put it to you a far more direct way.


BOB GARFIELD: If Karl Rove were the - still the White House political operative and he had the opportunity to use cherry-picked data to sell his administration’s policies, it sure would have been nice for him to have a really sweet interface.

EDWARD TUFTE: I had once the rather shocking experience that Karl Rove mentioned the ten most wonderful books that he ever read and, of course, it had Machiavelli, and so on.


But it also had, to my mixed delight and, and a little bit of horror, my book with the catchy title The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. [LAUGHS]

Political practice today too often skips right by evidence and has preconceived and endlessly naïve views about causality and how policies work. The government’s job is to try to solve problems, and I am interested in helping them solve the problem of clarifying the stimulus and also understanding the, the consequences of the stimulus.

I'm going to do the best I can and put it out in the world, and, and we'll see what happens.

BOB GARFIELD: All right. E.T., thank you very much for coming.

EDWARD TUFTE: Okay. [LAUGHS] Good, thank you.


BOB GARFIELD: Edward Tufte is author most recently of Beautiful Evidence.

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Edward Tufte is a data display guru who is widely known for criticizing the way most people use power point to communicate information. Here is what Wikipedia has to say: "He is an expert in the presentation of informational graphics such as charts and diagrams, and is a fellow of the American Statistical Association. Tufte has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences. Tufte lives in Cheshire, Connecticut. He periodically travels around the United States to offer one-day workshops on data presentation and information graphics."

Preview of coming attractions:. “The best statistical graphic ever drawn“, is how Edward Tufte describes this chart in ‘The Visual Display of Quantitative Information’.

Tufte goes on to comment:
The chart, or statistical graphic, is also a map. And a strange one at that. It depicts the advance into (1812) and retreat from (1813) Russia by Napoleon’s Grande Armée, which was decimated by a combination of the Russian winter, the Russian army and its scorched-earth tactics. To my knowledge, this is the origin of the term ’scorched earth’ – the retreating Russians burnt anything that might feed or shelter the French, thereby severely weakening Napoleon’s army.

As a statistical chart, the map unites six different sets of data.
• Geography: rivers, cities and battles are named and placed according to their occurrence on a regular map.
• The army’s course: the path’s flow follows the way in and out that Napoleon followed.
• The army’s direction: indicated by the colour of the path, gold leading into Russia, black leading out of it.
• The number of soldiers remaining: the path gets successively narrower, a plain reminder of the campaigns human toll, as each millimetre represents 10.000 men.
• Temperature: the freezing cold of the Russian winter on the return trip is indicated at the bottom, in the republican measurement of degrees of réaumur (water freezes at 0° réaumur, boils at 80° réaumur).
• Time: in relation to the temperature indicated at the bottom, from right to left, starting 24 October (pluie, i.e. ‘rain’) to 7 December (-27°).

Pause a moment to ponder the horrific human cost represented by this map: Napoleon entered Russia with 442.000 men, took Moscow with only 100.000 men left, wandered around its abandoned ruins for some time and escaped the East’s wintry clutches with barely 10.000 shivering soldiers. Those include 6.000 rejoining the ‘bulk’ of the army from up north. Napoleon never recovered from this blow, and would be decisively beaten at Waterloo under two years later.

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