This morning on Twitter @Bedtimemath posted the image above with the caption that read: “A natural distribution spotted in the wild! The wear on a weight machine reveals where people place its pin.
Though we experience life using multiple senses-sound, taste, touch,scent and sight, how much do we actually use to understand our place and actions? Consider this two dimensional picture, the visual more than likely drives the meaning we make. Did the words add any more meaning to what you understood in looking at the picture?
Last Friday, the strategy discussion I lead monthly talked about visual thinking and I realized how readily my business training reduces most if not all of the perceptions available through my five senses down to only one or two.
At work, we use words or numbers and rarely put both together as well as this tweet and accompanying image. This visual asks you to interpret the worn out paint or coating and recognize a normal distribution , which is a statistical explanation that adds another dimension to our understanding.
Could you plot a graph with the information you observe? How about wear vs. weight? That’s only two dimensions, with weight values on the x or horizontal access, and wear shown on the Y or vertical access. It might look like the two dimensional graph on the right.
Does this representation tell you anything more than the original image? I assigned numeric values to the different amount of chipped coating. Do you connect the current location of the weight on the machine as 170 across and estimate as I did 20 up?
Both image and graph show, but don’t tell as much as we assume.
Where’s the context? Do you know the amount of time it took for the paint to chip or relative distance between observations, or usage of the machine itself? We know nothing about the users of the machine, or its location and yet we do don’t we? The rust itself takes time to form and we can infer that more users choose at least 50 pounds, and the most users 90 pounds.
More than meets the eye
Next time you view a two dimensional graph–ask yourself what’s missing? Try to voice and articulate the context that you’ve assumed. Yes even if you do it alone, as hearing your thoughts activates different processing. When you do it in the company of others you will be surprised at the differences in your understanding.
I happened to see that DataScope analytics, a Chicago Based Data science firm had posted a request under data science on Reddit. They asked “What data skills do you wish non-data people you worked with (e.g. managers, PMs, marketing, HR, etc.) have? The responses on Reddit were quite fascinating.
Personally, I couldn’t help but notice how the replies typified the constant challenge and struggle that any information or data presents to everyone. What does the data mean, what is it’s significance?
The same themes arose in the conversation among business people exploring the challenges of visualizing data, in which we quicly recognized that few people see the appearance of data and instinctively look to explore it, versus others whose interest in data are for the sole purposes of confirming what they know.
The questions and process with which anyone approaches data obviously informs how it gets used and thus represented too. Too often we use only one or two dimensions as suggested by the graph of the interpretation of the photograph. I created the variable wear based on my interpretation of frequency approximated by the degree of chipped paint.
In contrast, the two dimensions suggest more than they reveal about how the world works. Economists, for example, plot supply and demand curves that look like a large X. Supply being the first line that descends vertically, and demand the second line that Ascends. The vertical access is Price and the horizontal access quantity.
What else is assumed in this representation? Geography? Time? what about probability and or frequency? Accuracy or specific observations as in the photograph are not the point of the representation. It’s merely to create a general understanding of the relationship between price and quantity from two different perspectives.
The economists are exploring and not predicting behavior, they are merely seeking ot make sense of the world not necessarily profit from it.
Further explorations that southt to clarify the assumptions led to the evolution of the behavioral economists and their additional perspective enahances general understanding of people’s beyond the one dimensional buyer or seller role and expanded the representation. The inclusion of additional dimensions of probability also introduce additional complexity in exchange for greater understanding.
My own training as an analyst has led me to begin with exploration, and interrogate rather than merely to extend or convert the representations. There’s always ore than meets the eye when it comes to understanding what we see.