Portrayals True and Free
© 4 Jan 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Art and Fiction vs Visualization and Biography


While contemplating how to condense five years of research on visualizations of multidimensional time into a poster and a five-minute talk, I had an interesting thought about what visualizations are.

Data visualization is the process of creating a portrayal of data that conveys the feeling of the concepts from which the data has sprung. Thus, a visualization of the sales figures of a company ought to not only contain as much information as would a tabulation of the data but also convey a holistic sense of the wellbeing of the company. Good data visualization is a “‍true‍” portrait of a concept.

We can contrast this with a “‍free‍” portrait of a concept, such as might be created by a liberal artist. These still try to provide an accurate depiction of the subject but do so without the constraint of conveying precise data. Sizes and colors can be adjusted for visual appeal, subjective elements may be added for which no numeric basis is provided, etc.

But both remain portrayals, one artisan’s interpretation of the concept. A clear example of this can be found in biographies. Like visualizations, biographies are to be rooted in data; yet anyone who has read multiple biographies of the same person can attest that the resulting picture can vary greatly from author to author. Heroes and villains can both be painted from the same historic data.

It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking that in the “‍information age‍” the data we have give us a correct portrayal of truth. Anyone who has tried to convert truth into information knows otherwise. Any portrayal, be it true to the data or freely expressed, remains, in the end, a portrait of the artist.

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