Data - our lives depend on it.
From the digital electric grid that keeps our lights on to the connected hospital information systems that keep patients alive, we live in a data-dependent world. And with the new data tool kit evolving for digital tool designers, we are sitting on the precipice of a golden age of new possibilities.
30 Second History of Data Presentation
Some of the earliest data visualizations were merchant tally boards for the trade of goods. It’s no accident that finance is still the most popular visualization area today. Ancient cultures made depictions of quantities, product types, and inventories that were used to account and keep track of their trade and scale their empires.
The Renaissance gave birth to modern accounting - the two column ledger, aka double entry bookkeeping, which would visually separate debits from credits, and have the ability to be shared via the printing press for companywide dissemination and analysis.
Although visually not revolutionary, the idea that data having specific visual formats was a critical step in a process that evolved slowly until a new tool was invented that had the capacity to render data in all new powerful ways.
Fast forward to 1973 to Xerox PARC, where the “Xerox Alto” computer introduced the concept of the graphical user interface (GUI), thus making electronic data visualization possible. Microsoft Excel was introduced in 1985 and along with a serious upgrade of the two column ledger, it could also produce graphs made from the same data and display them on a screen.
From then on, the presentation of data over the web and in software systems became more and more elaborate. The introduction of complex algorithms to process data, animation systems to bring data alive and mobile devices that simplified data presentation, all would contribute to where we are today.
New Data Types Emerging
To understand how the modern data display works today, we have to understand what kind of data there is. Although pure numbers are still the basis of most data systems, the data types being considered in the new generation of technology go beyond integers and into new dimensions, making it possible to create new possibilities of visualizations and helpful formula. The basic data types that compose a data set are the following:
INTEGERS – numerical values (“37”)
LOCATION – global positioning coordinates (“Latitude:1135; Longitude 337”)
TEXT STRINGS - words, letters, sentences, names and characters (“username”)
COMPOSITE - a mix of various data, such as array, a list, a record, or a union (“cart items”)
POINTERS - links to other sources, such as an image URL (“http://website.com/images/image.jpg”)
USER PROFILE – values the user enters about themselves (“hobby: water skiing”)
TIME – time of day, date, day (“16:32 PM 01012016”)
SYSTEM – specific data about device (“iPhone 5c”, “Safari 6”, “Android 4.5”)
Stop-and-Start vs Continuous Data Feeds
Before this, users would have to “Submit” a request for a data operation, such as saving a document. This submitted request was sent to a server or database, processed, and a response was then presented to the user. With AJAX, the entire process of “saving” can be eliminated as the system can autosave every second, with little or no performance issue for the user.
Another powerful example of AJAX at work is Google Maps, which allows you to scroll around a map, processing the coordinates as you scroll on the fly and answering with a visualization of those coordinates in real time.
This continuous, or under-the-covers, data flow can become super powerful and helpful as we extend its use. A good example is the industry-disrupting mobile app, Uber, which allows you to see a variety of Uber transportation opportunities in real time driving all around your location. If we didn’t have a continuous data feed, then we would have to submit a request each time to see an update of where our Uber driver is and the app would be very clunky.
Making the Data Come Alive
The mechanics of data processing and delivery has changed considerably, and so has its presentation mechanics. We now have an integrated set of technologies to help us animate and draw objects on a web page, like HTML5 Canvas and associated technologies.
When you see a modern data dashboard and the pie charts animate around, the bar graphs grow into place, and the trend analysis snakes it’s way through a timeline, then you are seeing these technologies in action.
Through these animated graphics, data is becoming more meaningful as users can get a sense of the relationship of data or the proportionality of data through light animation.
Algorithms: The Brains of Data Systems
You get your data, you deliver your data and you present your data. But there is another critical step. Data alone can be helpful, but it’s possibilities grow exponentially if you apply logical calculations to various sets of it.
Algorithms are simply operations, formulae and logic rules that process data in a variety of way for specific purposes. Today Google’s algorithms rely on more than 200 unique signals or “clues” that make it possible to guess what you might really be looking for. These signals include things like the terms on websites, the freshness of content, your region, and Page Rank (Google, Inside Search, 2016).
Complex algorithms can scan millions of data points and respond with a very intelligent answer. Welcome to the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The Holy Grail of data presentation is not just spitting out calculations, but presenting hyper-useful information based on a range of data points to make the user’s life easier or better.
Let’s take Siri, for example. You ask her a question, and Siri will scan though millions of data types (your personal history, information, weather, time, profile, calendar, emails, relevant web pages) as well as usage information from people like you, and then respond with an intelligent answer, recommendation or personalized response. Everything from IBM’s Watson to Amazon’s product recommendations is aiming for that same result and they are getting smarter and smarter every day.
The End Goal of Designing Data Interfaces
By utilizing the latest technologies for processing and presenting data, and then applying complex algorithms around them, we aim to present a beautiful and relevant display for the user. This could be a dashboard, or it could be a personalized insight. The ultimate goal of designing great data systems is synthesizing all of this data together to give users the right information at the right time to more effectively achieve their goals.
With this new data tool kit, possibilities are endless.