So-called modern data visualization software isn’t anything of the kind. They use outdated methods and are inadequate to the task of providing immediate, valuable insight into the new world of data.

Vannevar Bush
Vannevar Bush

He’s one of those people who seems to have faded, unjustly, into historical obscurity. But Vannevar Bush was perhaps one of the most important figures of the 20th century. He began the long collaboration between government, industry and academia that has led to some of the greatest inventions and breakthroughs of the modern age. Digital circuits and the atomic bomb are just two results from his work.

In 1945, he published an article in The Atlantic Monthly called “As We May Think.” Some say it was this article that inspired a young Ted Nelson (or Doug Engelbart, depending on who you read) with the idea for the hyperlink, an innovation that irrevocably changed the world.

Vannevar Bush Sketch
Vannevar Bush Sketch

In his article, Bush writes about the future of technology and how it can help mankind. In the span of a few pages he sketches out ideas like cameras worn on the head to capture events and voice memos. All innovations we use today.

iPhone
iPhone

While seeing the original thoughts for camera phones and easy voice recording is exciting, Bush’s greatest insight comes when he starts talking about the promise and problems inherent with the explosion of human knowledge. He saw the future after World War II as this vast realm of possibility where everyone could participate in a knowledge revolution, each contributing their unique piece to the vast assortment of human thought.

Data Center
Data Center

Well, we made good on part of that in the 70 years since he wrote it. Information is indeed expanding. IDC, an industry analyst firm, predicted the market for big data will grow six times faster than the overall IT market to reach nearly $60B by 2017. We are constantly reminded that the Internet of Things, a brave new world where everything that surrounds us exports data to be collected, collated and analyzed, is currently underway. Never before in the history of humanity has there been so much information, produced at such high volume, variety and velocity.

We seem to be on the cusp of the kind of glorious future Bush saw back in ‘45.

But there’s a catch. Something we slipped up on.

“Thus far we seem to be worse off than before–for we can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it.”

The most amazing record in the world is of no use to anyone if you can’t access it, learn from it, use it to make yourself better. It’s like being in a wonderful, enormous library and not being able to read the books. The same goes for data. Sure we’re producing it at an astounding rate but what are we doing with it, really?

Bush recognized the problem right away. “The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as we used in the days of square-rigged ships.”

Sad to say, but we’re still stuck in the same place we were all those years ago when it comes to using all this new data. Information is exploding all around us and the methods we have for accessing and understanding it are archaic.

Charts & Graphs
Charts & Graphs

Case in point: when was the last time you saw a bar chart? Those charts that seem to be in every software program. Especially those that are shouting about how “new” they are. But take a closer look. In reality, they are regurgitations of visualization methodologies that are at least three-hundred years old. In fact, the first bar charts appeared in the 1780s, making them the contemporaries of those same square-rigged ships Bush was talking about.

It seems all we gained for all of our technological wizardry is a faster way to serve up the same visualizations we’ve been using since the days of Captain Kidd. Oh, and we’ve added some slick animations.

But beyond just how they deliver information, these ‘new’ visualization programs have a more fundamental problem: what do you do with information once you’ve found it.

This problem, once again, is nothing new. Speaking of the way information used to be organized (and this is in 1945 remember) Bush writes “having found one item…one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.” Modern data management programs are stuck in the same quagmire. They only show you one event or entity at a time, disconnected from its context. Say you have a “tactical” dashboard that shows you your operations. To see the specifics you have to drill down (usually to a spreadsheet) about a single entity or event that’s causing your operation to come to a grinding halt. Once you find “the momentarily important item” you then have to backtrack or sidestep to find the next and spot a pattern.

Human Brain
Human Brain

That’s a model of inefficiency. But Bush envisioned a better way. He writes “The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts.”

He called this “selection by association,” and it speaks to that fundamental human mental activity: pattern recognition.

Modern science has supported Bush all the way. As human beings our eyes and brain work together to spot patterns. Over 30% of your brain is dedicated to sight, most of that to recognizing familiar images and spotting patterns. But it’s hard to find the pattern when you’re looking at just one event or entity. Impossible, really.

Luckily, there’s hope. Bush’s answer to the problem was the memex, a futuristic desk that bears an uncanny resemblance to modern computers. The memex was founded on the principle of tying useful things together, of making permanent those connections that happened in your mind when it saw information in context.

VisualCue Interface
VisualCue Interface

 

At VisualCue we wanted the same thing: a better way to access the explosion of knowledge and make it useful for everyone. A way of navigating information that worked in tandem with the natural way people think, not against it. Only instead of creating a new machine, we put our effort into creating a data visualization platform that lets you see all of your information in one screen. It’s not a dashboard that just shows you the overall scores. It’s not a bar chart that shows how things were. It’s all of the information, from the big picture down to the details, in one visualization.

Cue Colors
Cue Colors

“But wait” you might ask. “Won’t stuff get confusing if I see everything at once? Talk about an overload.” Enter visual language. We use icons in recognizable colors and shapes to present information. Icons resemble the things they represent so everyone intuitively understands them.

VisualCue Tile Example
VisualCue Tile Example

But icons serve another purpose. Put a bunch of them together and your eyes gloss over the shapes and colors that look the same but immediately recognize the one that doesn’t look the same as an anomaly in the pattern. Then, because you’re seeing all your information in context, you can see the story and determine why it is the way it is, your mind snapping between events and drawing smart conclusions.

That’s why we say VisualCue is powered by sight- your natural abilities do the initial sorting and work to make links between the anomalies you see. The result of this brain-powered visualization technique is astounding; you use what nature gave you to find the story in thousands of different events or entities, finding patterns and getting actionable insight without having to hunt through the maze of spreadsheets or charts and graphs. And these icons update in real-time, so you can instantly see what’s wrong and make quick, smart decisions while they still count.

That’s what we’re doing to move visualization out of the past and into the future. Once everyone has access to the mountains of information we are producing every day and can intuitively use that data to make better decisions we’ll see what “operational intelligence” can really do. Who knows, we might even see the kind of world Bush saw years ago.

To find out more, check out the rest of the website. Discover the science behind VisualCue, browse complete solutions for different industries or give it a try yourself with our free trial.

What do you think the problems with modern data visualization are? Feel free to leave us a comment below and let’s talk about it.

See you next time,

-The VisualCrew