Visualizing change with Stephen Few

Well, I must say I am a bit disappointed with the September issue of Stephen Few’s Visual Business Intelligence Newsletter. It discusses an important but much neglected topic, visualizing change through animation. Few’s paper was written for SAS Institute, and uses JMP, a statistical analysis product from them. From the screenshots, I wouldn’t say I am overly impressed. Animation requires interaction, and the only available interaction is the same that you get from any player (go, stop, step…). There seems to be no interaction with the data.

[Update: this post discusses the paper, not the software, but you can take a look at the online demos here.]

Actually, Few discusses the patterns of change through time and how magnitude, shape, velocity and direction contribute to those patterns and how that can be displayed in traditional charts like line charts, but if you read it carefully there is not much discussion of animation itself. I guess he doesn’t really like to see “the state of Florida bounc[ing] around the bubble plot as time passes”. And who can blame him? The “trails” feature gives him the opportunity to return to a more stable ground in the form of “a single image”. It plots the entire time series in a single image, like the traditional line charts do, using a sequential range of color where lighter shades refer to the beginning of the series. I would say that Few tested the waters of animation and was not convinced.

I exemplified animation in a previous post on visualization of demographic information. As I wrote in that post, animation is useful only if a global pattern and perhaps sub-patterns emerge from the trend of multiple data points/series, a pattern that would be harder to spot if we had to browse over multiple charts. A global trend and some meaningful outliers can be seen for example in Hans Rosling’s presentation. From my point of view, it doesn’t really matters if “the state of Florida bounce around the bubble plot as time passes”. What matters is: how does Florida contribute to the overall pattern (assuming there is one)? Is it a well-behaved state? Is it an outlier? We don’t need animation to see how Florida changes, just like we don’t need a static chart to plot a single data point.

Let me quote the last paragraph:

“The stories that time-series data have to tell are often rich and important. They are much too important to remain unknown simply because we lack tools that can bring them to light.”

We do lack interactive tools. But for simple animations we can use Excel, as you can see in this draft example, and I am sure the Excel virtuoso Jon Peltier could come up with a great add-in…

5 thoughts on “Visualizing change with Stephen Few”

  1. Jorge,

    You have misinterpreted my article. As I stated in it, I find animations quite useful. The fact that I could not illustrate animation adequately using static images should not be read as disappointment in the feature. What I emphasized in the article, however, is the limitation of animation in that you cannot remember the path that a bubble or data point follows in any detail after the animation has finished. The primary point of the article was to feature the benefits of a “trail” to see the entire path at one time, thus overcoming the limits of short-term memory.

    Contrary to what you have said, it might very well matter whether we can or cannot see Florida moving around in the scatterplot over time. This is part of the pattern that might be quite important to the story. We might not need a static chart to plot a single data point, as you have pointed out, but we do need animation or a trail to see how the data point that represents Florida changed through time. If you know of another way to see this in a scatterplot, I would be interested in seeing it.

    Take care,


  2. Steve
    Great to have you here! I decided not to look at the software before commenting your paper. After reading it again I still find it unbalanced. You take your time writing about change but you almost skip animation to talk about the “trails” feature. It’s ok, it’s a nice feature, but I wish you could share with us your valuable views on animation besides the short memory problem.

    I now have a better understanding of trails, after looking at the online demo (you should really use screencasts! I love them.), but I’ll discuss them in a next post on “how to see Florida in an animated chart”…

  3. hey Stephen,chk this out I bet this can help you for your animation Charts visifire they have some cool and awesome animated charts and even more offered under open source just for free

  4. Micky, animation should help to understand the data. Those animations are basically the same we find in Powerpoint. Useless.

  5. Jorge, I agree that those Visifire animations are useless. They come in two flavors: 1) expand a bar/line then let it bounce around for a moment; 2) fly in the bars/lines from random parts. These types of animations are childish don’t help in the least. On the other hand, it doesn’t surprise me from a Microsoft product (Silverlight…I’m assume those are defaults brought to us from Redmond).

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