Everything Historical is a Flowchart, Everything Future is a Decision Tree

Any lover of 1980’s music (or anyone who listens to the radio) can work their way through this flow chart.  Guessing what’s going to happen tomorrow or next year looks a little more like this.  What they have in common is movement is iterations of events occurring in time represented graphically.  For data visualization, this continues to be a struggle, how can one show particular variable impacts without a video?  There may be a long wait for improvements toward ‘the perfect dashboard’.

Why is this important?  One example is the Federal Stimulus Package of 2009 has a significant focus on workforce development.  The current approach might surprise someone not in the field.  The granularity in working with individuals is heartening: student information system users want to be able to watch students (in this case workers, often in a community college or other re-training program) longitudinally.  Imagine a graph auto-scrolling to the right showing lines for income, education, hours working per week, employment or other benefits received, language skills—then add lines for macro events such as employment rates in that county, state or country, and other data.  While a more quantitative analyst might want to group students together to look for trends or who are leading or lagging indicators, the individual educators, program managers, Department of Labor professionals and others want to be able to see time passing—a dashboard ‘case history’ or ‘life story’ of helping an individual succeed in transitioning from the old economy to the new, from an older life to a newer one.

How will it look?  While there are amazing folks out there doing static knowledge visualization, this is different, and it’s harder to find folks doing it well.

–          There’s nothing wrong with using the old clock metaphor.  We see clocks so many times that it’s surprising more analysts and presenters don’t leverage the icon burn-in.

–          Traditional bar graphs can be functional, but again it forces on to move their eyes and mind to the right to express the flow of time.  Tufte made this representation famous, while the time aspect is more similar to bar graphs where one imagines time progressing, we can see relative changes in space and other variables in time.

–          Proper respect goes to my old company MicroStrategy for using the latest Web 2.0 technologies to produce cool dashboards like this (including a longitudinal scroll bar of sorts in the upper right) which, because of their large partner base, are commonly seen in analytic software now.

–          Imagine a static print view of the image seen in this fun video at about 1 minute 8 seconds in with the cascading, serial flow from the printers.  The cascade concept, whether here or elsewhere, leverages the natural burn-in from our experience with gravity and entropy: things tend to go down, and they tend to move from the start in any direction they can flow (in a graph, the y axis is symbiotically a wall, and moving across x is the only direction anything can flow).

–          We’ll probably have to rely on manually scrolling for a while, as one can do at the bottom of this dashboard.

–          The really nice solution can be seen here at 2:15 in the video (even better with tracers at 3:20) which is brought to you by, guess who, Google.