Thursday, August 17, 2006

Graphical Visualization - Making Sense Out of Data

I have long been a fan of graphical visualization of data. Examining tabular data vs. looking at graphs involves different areas of the brain, I am told. And we are quicker to see trends and relationships when viewing data graphically.

This arena has seen much activity in research areas in university environments over the years, but it doesn't seem to have hit the mainstream in accepted business tools, beyond the graphical charting capabilities of spreadsheets. Several years ago a few new tools appeared in areas that require a rapid grasp of trends, and more recently there have been some new types of graphical tools used in displaying search engine results. This is certainly an area that provides a large volume of information to be displayed, and site users are interested in sifting out the items that are closer to the target of their search.

The top graphical display tools I have seen are:
  • SmartMoney's 'Map of the Market' - a graphical display of stock market performance that is staggering in its ability to show trends, whether market trends in general or in particular sectors
  • LivePlasma ( and - a graphical display that uses Amazon's recent purchase history to visually display "people who bought A also bought B" information; a kick to explore
  • Grokker ( - a search engine that "clusters" the results (groups them into like categories) AND offers a graphical representation you may use for drill down
  • Kartoo ( - another search approach that provides more visual clues on screen (relationships between results) and some nice mouseover clues as well
  • The TouchGraph browser - a rich though somewhat visually confusing display of data relationships

If you know of some good graphical display tools that really seem to work well in helping you see trends in data, please suggest them to me. Of the ones above, the SmartMoney site is without a doubt the best example. But it uses a piece of software that was developed separately (I believe in a university environment) and they license it for lots of money (too much for me).

As we get buried in more and more "data" we will graphical visualization tools to help "mine" it and turn it into "information" that we can use. Data mining tools try to find the relationships and correlations mathematically, but I would prefer to see better visual "glasses" we could use as overlays - so we the humans can see trends and relationships quicker and easier.

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Monday, August 07, 2006

I heard an inspiring interview on NPR last week. The 'always great' Diane Rehm show had a guest host interviewing the author of a new book titled 'This Is Your Brain on Music' that addresses new studies into why music in its varied forms has been an ongoing obsession of the human race.

Why We Like Music
The discussion hit home for me on many levels. As sentient beings we seem to be focused on categorizing the world around us... making it 'make sense'. Certainly a good survival trait, I suppose. The author, Daniel Levitin, commented about the brain being 'on the lookout for surprises' (again, a useful survival trait) and that musically the brain reacts to surprises - those things which aren't quite what was expected - and they stand out. But when the 'pattern' is repeated enough our brains tend to lose interest (or maybe just pay less attention). One of his examples (there are many on the book's web site was Frank Sinatra. His musical phrasing made it virtually impossible to sing smoothly along with him, but also contributed to his enduring popularity.

How/When Learning Occurs
I found this fascinating because I have also heard discussions that the best learning occurs when the brain makes a new connection - linking things that weren't previously linked (that Ah-ha kind of feeling). Again, a valuable survival trait for the species. We make a connection, notice correlations, etc. that either prove valuable and are remembered or get pushed out of our active knowledge base as unimportant. But part of the thrill of learning is the joy of making the connections themselves. And very quickly, the 'surprise' or the 'connection' gets boring if it just gets repeated. (I feel a comment about "standardized testing" coming on here.)

It would seem to me that once a particular 'connection' is established, the best thing is to reinforce it in the brain by applying it as widely as possible to related 'tasks' - making even more connections rather than drilling the first one to death. Gaming seems to do a better job of this than standard classroom approaches.

Relationship to Humor
A related discussion is how the brain reacts to new information delivered within a group context. Most humor seems also based on making a new connection - puns being a rudimentary form. A joke is just an expected chain of events that takes a particular turn we didn't see coming. The fact that we were 'expecting' a joke usually helps set it up, but the best jokes are those you didn't see coming even though you knew it was a joke.

In fact, laugh tracks were added to most TV shows because audience testing indicated that the at-home audiences were 'uncomfortable' when joke situations were presented with no audience clues. Laughter, apparently, is a social signal that we 'get the joke', we have 'made the connection' mentally that makes the situation funny/ironic/stupid. When we hear a 'joke' but no one else is chuckling or expressing opinion, we are afraid that we're the only ones who see the connection the way we do.

Survival Skills
My own brain made the connection between (a) this interview on research into why we react the way we do to music of varying types by listening for unexpected 'surprises', (b) how we seem to learn by individually making 'connections' and brain pathways that we either keep or discard, and (c) the ways we react to humor, sitcoms, jokes by looking for the unexpected (surprise?) connection in the joke or situation or looking for validation or substantiation of our own experiences.

We are indeed complex beings and we have surrounded ourselves with even more complex social structures, but it seems we have a pretty fascinating foundation just looking at the way our brains are wired for survival.

I recall playing with my few week (or few month) old daughter, just doing stupid stuff like making nonsense noises and funny faces. She seemed to be mimicking me. As I would do something like an exaggerated blink of my eyes, she would echo the same. When I made a certain "ga-ga" noise, she would echo it back. As I stuck out my tongue, she would follow by doing the same. It never occured to me until later that this behavior indicated she was displaying knowledge of her own body, face and head. And then I wondered... how could she copy sticking her tongue out when she was unable to see her own tongue?