Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Data Visualization

I am not a numbers guy, not by any means. So much so that when someone asks a math question (even simple addition) in a meeting, I just look around the room and wait for the numbers to magically appear out of someone else's mouth. You can imagine my surprise then, when after reading Greg Farr's post on Leadertalk yesterday, I have been consumed with trying to get my district's data to play nicely within a widget-type application.

Patterns, I can recognize. Numbers mean nothing to me, and haven't since poaching tutoring sessions off of Raj back in calculus class in 1993. However, placed within a visual context, I can make sense of things and they begin to become real for me. For example, tell me a student is absent today and it means no more than any other day, but show me average student attendance plotted against some other variable, like night-time sporting events, and the numbers translate into habits.

Farr's idea of making public the school's essential data so that it is alive and "in your face" for lack of a better word, takes transparency to a whole new level. Instead of an intuition that teachers may have about the number of students in the hallways, real data tells them what the attendance numbers are, and better yet, if it is in the form of a widget that lives on their desktop, it is unavoidable. When data comes to you, it means something different than if you only go looking for it when you need it.

The second step of getting this data to the staff would be making it look all pretty and dance for them. Need twenty minutes of well-spent time? Watch this:

Gapminder is an unbelievable idea, and this truly makes patterns visible, and as Rosling says early on, fights misconception rather than ignorance. Right now, I am searching for some way, with my meager hack skills, to take our data from our SIS, and visually represent it for our staff (looking into using Many Eyes and Swivel). I love this idea, and I will settle for low-tech if I have to for now. Taking that representation to our desktops will be the final frontier. Imagine that, all of this from someone who ducks and covers when math is in the air.

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