Feb 11 2015
For those trying to calculate the opportunities and advantages that have been created by the rise of Big Data and Cloud-computing, it can be difficult to grasp the scale of raw data that has become available. Recent technological advances have inspired some mind-boggling growth in the amount of information we share.
For example, annual global IP traffic will pass the zettabyte mark in 2016. What’s a zettabye? Well, it’s 1.1 trillion gigabytes. Or to put it more concretely, that’s 75 billion 16-gigabyte iPads. Or in other words, roughly the same amount of digital information as playing an hour-long television show continuously for 125 million years.
It’s a lot.
But as impressive as our global network of Cloud-connected smart devices may be, we have another computational tool that’s even more exciting: the brain.
“The human brain consists of about one billion neurons. Each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections,” writes Paul Reber, a brain researcher at Northwestern University. Because of how they combine and collaborate, the capacity of neurons to support vastly complex associative processes is incalculable.
But all that complexity also poses a problem. Because we’re so fantastically good at instinctually integrating and correlating different types of data, and using that skill to come up with creative ideas and identify important insights, we’re busy doing that all the time. And we’re generally less good at boring, linear computations, like sifting through reams of numbers on the fly.
So as remarkable as the brain is, it’s also very limited, at least compared to computers, which are designed to be able to treat each data point individually, without getting mired in all the context. This is where interactive visuals come in. They make it easy for our brains to do what brains do best, such as getting mired in all that vital and indispensable context, and making sense of it.
Here are five simple reasons to pursue better data visualization and work with your brain, not against it.
1) You’re already good at it. “Our visual system is extremely well built for visual analysis,” writes Noah Iliinsky, co-author of Designing Data Visualizations. “There’s a huge amount of data coming into your brain through your eyes; the optic nerve is a very big pipe, and it sends data to your brain very quickly (one study estimates the transmission speed of the optic nerve at around 9Mb/sec). Once that data arrives at the brain, it’s rapidly processed by sophisticated software that’s extremely good at tasks such as edge detection, shape recognition, and pattern matching.” Basically, vision is our dominant sense, and so our brains perceive and understand data best when it’s visualized. It’s what we’re evolved to do.
2) Everyone benefits from it. Some people think of themselves as visual learners, but this is actually true of everyone, even those who prefer numbers. “While it is true that some people have greater visual thinking abilities than others and that some people have a greater interest in images than others, all people with normal perceptual abilities are predominantly visual,” writes Stephen Few, an information designer and author. “Everyone benefits from data visualization, whether they consider themselves visual learners or not, including those who prefer numbers.”
3) You’ll have more ideas. Edward Tufte, a data visualization expert, writes: “Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.” Good data visualization exposes patterns that propel innovation, from more effective promotions to supply chain solutions to responsive product development.
4) Competing with computers is a waste of time. Our brains can store an astonishing amount of information, but the vast majority of it isn’t easily accessible. Most of us struggle to remember a few simple numbers and maybe a password or two. Even though our brains are incredibly complex, our working memory can hold only about 3 chunks of information at any given time. That lets us respond very quickly and imaginatively to what’s in front of us. But leave the recall to the machines; they’re much better at it. 5) You’ll get the why, not the what. When business leaders look at data, it’s not idle curiosity that drives them. They’re looking for solutions to pernicious problems like out-of-stock and phantom inventory. Big Data already offers a comprehensive picture of what is happening along the entire supply chain as well as the path to purchase. But until that information is offered to our brains in a way they can use, all that improved awareness is irrelevant. Presenting data through interactive visuals allows users to ask the right questions that lead most quickly to identifying causes and creating solutions.
To interact with your company’s retail data on a visual dashboard, contact us for a free demo of Askuity’s retail analytics platform.