What is data visualization? A definition, examples, and resources

Data visualization is a general term that describes any effort to help people understand the significance of data by placing it in a visual context. Patterns, trends and correlations that might go undetected in text-based data can be exposed and recognized easier with data visualization software.

Today’s data visualization tools go beyond the standard charts and graphs used in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, displaying data in more sophisticated ways such as infographics, dials and gauges, geographic maps, sparklines, heat maps, and detailed bar, pie and fever charts. The images may include interactive capabilities, enabling users to manipulate them or drill into the data for querying and analysis. Indicators designed to alert users when data has been updated or predefined conditions occur can also be included.

Importance of data visualization

Data visualization has become the de facto standard for modern business intelligence (BI). The success of the two leading vendors in the BI space, Tableau and Qlik — both of which heavily emphasize visualization — has moved other vendors toward a more visual approach in their software. Virtually all BI software has strong data visualization functionality.

Data visualization tools have been important in democratizing data and analytics and making data-driven insights available to workers throughout an organization. They are typically easier to operate than traditional statistical analysis software or earlier versions of BI software. This has led to a rise in lines of business implementing data visualization tools on their own, without support from IT.

Data visualization software also plays an important role in big data and advanced analytics projects. As businesses accumulated massive troves of data during the early years of the big data trend, they needed a way to quickly and easily get an overview of their data. Visualization tools were a natural fit.

Visualization is central to advanced analytics for similar reasons. When a data scientist is writing advanced predictive analytics or machine learning algorithms, it becomes important to visualize the outputs to monitor results and ensure that models are performing as intended. This is because visualizations of complex algorithms are generally easier to interpret than numerical outputs.

The different types of visualizations

When you think of data visualization, your first thought probably immediately goes to simple bar graphs or pie charts. While these may be an integral part of visualizing data and a common baseline for many data graphics, the right visualization must be paired with the right set of information. Simple graphs are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole selection of visualization methods to present data in effective and interesting ways.

Common general types of data visualization:

  • Charts
  • Tables
  • Graphs
  • Maps
  • Infographics
  • Dashboards

More specific examples of methods to visualize data:

  • Area Chart
  • Bar Chart
  • Box-and-whisker Plots
  • Bubble Cloud
  • Bullet Graph
  • Cartogram
  • Circle View
  • Dot Distribution Map
  • Gantt Chart
  • Heat Map
  • Highlight Table
  • Histogram
  • Matrix
  • Network
  • Polar Area
  • Radial Tree
  • Scatter Plot (2D or 3D)
  • Streamgraph
  • Text Tables
  • Timeline
  • Treemap
  • Wedge Stack Graph
  • Word Cloud
  • And any mix-and-match combination in a dashboard!

Why data visualization is important for any career

It’s hard to think of a professional industry that doesn’t benefit from making data more understandable. Every STEM field benefits from understanding data—and so do fields in government, finance, marketing, history, consumer goods, service industries, education, sports, and so on.

While we’ll always wax poetically about data visualization (you’re on the Tableau website, after all) there are practical, real-life applications that are undeniable. And, since visualization is so prolific, it’s also one of the most useful professional skills to develop. The better you can convey your points visually, whether in a dashboard or a slide deck, the better you can leverage that information.

The concept of the citizen data scientist is on the rise. Skill sets are changing to accommodate a data-driven world. It is increasingly valuable for professionals to be able to use data to make decisions and use visuals to tell stories of when data informs the who, what, when, where, and how. While traditional education typically draws a distinct line between creative storytelling and technical analysis, the modern professional world also values those who can cross between the two: data visualization sits right in the middle of analysis and visual storytelling.

There are loads of free courses and paid training programs

There are plenty of great paid and free courses and resources on data visualization out there, including right here on the Simpliv website. There are videos, articles, and whitepapers for everyone from beginner to data rockstar. When it comes to third-party courses, however, we won’t provide specific suggestions in this article at this time.

2 thoughts on “What is data visualization? A definition, examples, and resources

  1. I started reading this article and thought, There’s no reason a novelist would need data visualization tools. But then I remembered just yesterday I saw an info graphic on how people choose what book to read next . . . a helpful, memorable graphic!

    Good post!

    Like

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