Saturday, October 01, 2011

Data Visualization Crack

My love of maps is what drew me to study geography. Maps are a form of data visualization. Data visualization, as well as cartography, is an art form. A great cartographer is a master marketer. All that springs to mind while reading about "mapping Nashville's growth":

We all know Nashville is booming and Detroit is bleeding.

But to see migration patterns visually illustrated on a map, as it was Thursday afternoon at a forum for Nashville commercial real estate professionals, was fascinating.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Others in the room whipped out their cell phones and snapped a photo of the slide. See it for yourself at the gallery to the right or here at the interactive Forbes map.

Michael Noer, an executive editor of Forbes magazine speaking at the Certified Commercial Investment Member economic outlook forum, used the graphic to drive home the point that people in a free market society don’t just vote with their wallet, but with their feet.

I emphasized the dominant narrative. People are voting with their feet, leaving Detroit and moving to Nashville. The map, the data visualizations make it true. Maps have that kind of power.

Most of us don't learn visual literacy while in school. Even those with deep backgrounds in visual arts or advertising/marketing likely don't know how to lie with maps. However, anyone can observe how people react to certain maps and see an opportunity.

Show, don't tell. The task of putting together slides for a world regional geography class taught me to eliminate as many words and numbers as possible. Students without much social science background can quickly absorb and interrogate data visualizations. A good map lends itself to classroom discussion. As the students processed the abstraction (the propaganda), I'd lecture. I could say anything as long as the visualization reinforced the point.

I've noticed that many of the speakers in TED talks use the same technique. Author Thomas Barnett ("The Pentagon's New Map") mentions the killer slide, the visualization that convinces the audience to buy your story. It's a process of trial and error. Barnett has finely honed his presentation. He can effectively evangelize his world view.

People vote with their feet. That's one way to model migration. The Forbes maps sell the abstraction beautifully. You can see it with your own eyes. Detroit is bleeding.

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