Mortality Research & Consulting

Edward Tufte in San Francisco, 10 December 2013

SM Day, RJ Reynolds

Edward Tufte in San Francisco, 10 December 2013

Written by Reynolds RJ and Day SM on January 06 2014

Tufte San Francisco
Best statistical graph ever drawn

We recently had the pleasure of attending a seminar by one of the world’s experts on the presentation of quantitative data and information. At turns witty, sardonic, or professorial, “ET” (as he is affectionately known by his fans) was entertaining and informative in Presenting Data and Information: A One Day Course Taught by Edward Tufte.

Edward Tufte (ET) is an Emeritus professor of Political Science from Yale University. He has a strong background in statistics and has built a reputation as a connoisseur of informational and statistical graphics. ET has published 4 books on the topic: He sells these as well as various prints and for years has delivered at locations throughout the country an evolving one-day seminar on presenting information.

The overall theme of the day was how to give good talks that include interesting and informative graphics. ET started his seminar by displaying two exemplary data-rich website interfaces: that of the United States National Weather Service and that of ESPN, the sports network. The information density and the clarity of presentation on those sites are impressive.

Another interesting demonstration was a video of the Music Animation Machine (MAM). The MAM videos are a popular series of music videos which allow for the visualization of the music as the notes play. Lines scroll horizontally across the screen much like the roll of a player piano. The vertical positions of the lines show the notes on the music staff, the color differentiates the octaves, and the length of the note represents how long it is sustained. When applied to complex music such as classical symphony, the result is a conglomeration of beautiful music and data-rich visualization. Current, recent past, and near future sounds are all simultaneously visualized. The complete animated graphical score of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is a good example.

ET spent ample time discussing what he calls sparklines. A sparkline is a small intense, simple, word-sized graphic with typographic resolution. Sparklines are often the same size as text in a line or paragraph and integrate graphs, color, and text for an elegant data display. ET discussed examples from finance and baseball. Scroll down ET’s related web page to see examples.

ET also focused his audience’s attention on his “Fundamental Principles of Analytical Design” from his book Beautiful Evidence. These 6 principles are what ET believes to be the most important aspects of any picture or diagram that is meant to convey numerical information. In the book, ET claims that the relevance of his 6 principles is derived from what he calls the “Grand Principle of Analytical Design,” namely, “The principles of analytical design are derived from the principles of analytical thinking.” (Beautiful Evidence, pg. 137) As part of this portion of the seminar ET also offered advice about transparency and ownership (or non-ownership) of data, assumptions, and analyses – something that even veteran statisticians could stand to hear again from time to time.

To wrap up, ET offered his opinions on what he thinks the future of graphics and visualization will hold. He touched on such diverse subjects as the amount of data that can be captured by a digital video recording device, how much of that information can be displayed and perceived by the human eye, and what the limitations may be on the resolution of digital display devices. He gave previews of some of his latest projects in visualization, and of course, made sure that his audience was aware of some of the beautiful prints and other books available for purchase at the seminar.

All in all, ET’s seminar was interesting and informative, though sometimes laden with sardonic wit. ET has earned his reputation as the guru of graphics by understanding, isolating, and teaching the principles of excellent quantitative graphical displays. In this regard he delivered. We would recommend it for anyone with an interest in effective presentation of quantitative information.


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