Thursday, November 23, 2006

Visualization and Coding

While focusing more and more on how to build out a Data Visualization practice, I realized that this practice does not border only on creating art objects (see my last week’s posting) but it transgresses into the most basic function of software development: Coding. Let me try to expand on this basic idea of incorporating another related discipline into our data world. Wikipedia expresses a similar thought when it talks about Coding: “There is an on going debate on the extent to which the writing of programs is an art or an engineering discipline.” I believe the same question can be asked to anyone who is serious about Data Visualization. That’s why the inclusion of Coding and Design into this practice becomes simultaneously more relevant and more challenging.

Coding is the mathematical writing of business rules and machine orders that enables a computer to repeat the same task endlessly. How do visualizing and coding come together? First, there is the data challenge or question that triggers the need of insightful visualization. Second, someone has the idea of how to visually represent the potential answer to the data challenge. Now there comes the third step, when Coding is entering the game. We need to mash available or design new applications into creating the right visual outcome. This does not happen at every visualization challenge but whenever we are trying to create a first, a real innovation. Only the collaboration of initial visual ideas, and the disciplined writing of the right code creates the artful result and object. And it’s only possible in today’s world of Open Source Software, decreasing costs for hard and software, and the rapid speed of prototyping.

Therefore, the Data Visualization practice resides between the more art centric discipline of design and the more engineering focused discipline coding. At its best it combines both life forms and generates a result of clarity, repeatability, and beauty while pointing to a relevant insight changing of how we would attack a particular marketing problem. I purposefully don’t include any reference to our core analytical and statistical work, I will do it another time.


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