Stephen Few recently published an article titled “Data Is Not Beautiful”. Apart from the title, which is an obvious reference to the subreddit r/DataIsBeautiful, Randal S. Olson (one of the Moderators of the subreddit) also mentioned that they were in discussion with Stephen to do an AMA (ask me anything) but he declined. It’s a fair assumption to say that the recent post was a reaction to this invitation.

In his article Stephen argued that:

[…] data is neither beautiful nor ugly. Data is data; it merely describes what is and has no aesthetic dimension.

I generally agree with this. Data is just this, a collection of dimensions and values that derives it’s meaning through interpretation, be it by eg. reading increasing values in a table or a line in a graph that goes up.

This becomes especially obvious when looking at a graph that represents for examples casualties in a war zone. Would you call the data “ugly” because of what it represents? Would you call it beautiful because of it’s visual representation in a nice graph? Or maybe call it ugly despite the nice graph?

If you took the name of the subreddit literal, then it really doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Stephen continues to argue that he appreciates well done data visualisation as well as data art (for the difference between the two read: Data Art vs. Data Visualization: Why Does a Distinction Matter?) to then go on and rant against, what I assume to be, the r/DataIsBeautiful community.

What I cannot stomach is meaningless visual drivel that calls itself data art or, even worse, calls itself data visualization. I stridently object to the work of lazy, unskilled creators of meaningless, difficult to read, or misleading data displays. I’m referring to visualizations that fail to display data in ways that promote clear and true understanding.

I find this very disturbing for several reasons:

  1. Stephen defined the terms “Data Visualisation” and “Data Art” as you can read in the above linked article. The problem with this definition is that it is narrower than the average reader – who is not familiar with Stephen Few – would understand. According to his definition, the bar chart below would be Data Visualisation, while the pie chart wouldn’t. Although both are visual (read: visible) representations of the same data.

  2. The whole post focusses on this narrow definition and ignores the larger context of reddit as a community. As Randy Olson put it:

    r/DataIsBeautiful should encourage people to play with data, to create visual representations of data and to learn things. These learnings might be how to represent data or insights from the visual representations.

  3. The statement itself sounds overly arrogant and detached. Everybody less skilled than Stephen who does not visualise data according to Visual Best Practise should better stop spamming the internet with their inferior creations. That is like a painter telling his 4 year old daughter that she is lazy and unskilled when she tells him that she painted a painting.
  4. The statement also has a hint of the turf war that sooner or later many communities face. What is the “real™” way to do X? Where does it stop to be X? Who decides what X is anyway? Similar things happen(ed) in Parkour/Freerunning and various styles of Capoeira to name two from personal experience.

Yes, if you look through the r/DataIsBeautiful posts, a lot of content is neither well designed nor does it follow Visual Best Practise. The community will largely respond to that by downvotes or comments, the reason that this doesn’t improve the overall quality is, again, by design. Everybody can post to reddit without any gate keepers.; this makes it easy to join but hard to curate.

R/DataIsBeautiful has a lot more to it, the title is a response to the general notion that people who work with numbers (Statisticians, Analysts, Mathematicians, etc.) are nerds that have no idea of beauty. It’s maybe even a self ironic justification to keep doing what they are doing. And it’s a place where people find other people that care about what they are doing, help with questions and criticise where appropriate.

Stephen is undoubtedly one of the top, if not the expert when it comes to Data Visualisation and he puts a lot of work and thoughts into these topics, however I personally feel that a conversation with the mods or the community could have served his agenda a lot more than a blunt rant about “lazy and unskilled creators

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