Pretty -vs- useful

When I studied GIS we where doing a lot of cool projects, and they were a lot of fun to work on because all data was available and clean, we could decide what was best for the project and there was no client who would tell us differently, other than a teacher trying to play tough. But after graduating I soon found out those types of projects never showed up in the “real world”.

The GIS field has matured a lot since then, and I am sure courses now give actual real world examples to work on, so that students are more and better prepared for the more challenging reality. Still though, occasionally I talk to a frustrated and recently graduated GIS tech, complaining about a map not working because in school he could just focus on more fun stuff and datasets generally just worked.

Through many blogs I follow through FlipBoard I see a lot of data visualizations that look cool and in a few cases interesting, but appear to serve no purpose and make no point. Way too many
infographics are even worse. Surely many of these are made as internal or student projects, or for training purposes, and as such they may work well. But I love seeing cool and interesting data visualizations, that actually have a purpose of communicating information quickly and in such a way that the user doesn’t need to know all details to understand what he or she is seeing, and those are truly rare. It’s not the cool factor that matters (to me) but the effectiveness of the data visualization. That the balance is in favor of the “pretty” ones most likely has to do with the fact they are the easy ones, and with infographics and data visualizations being a hot topic (like GIS was when I started) everybody wants to have a quick go at it.

You may note I don’t have many personal examples, if any, and I must and will admit it is easy to comment from the outside. But I am sure I am not alone in this, even just by following the virtual boxing match between Stephen Few and David McCandless. Both are good at what they do I suppose, but to all Stephens and alike, please keep up the great and useful work so the people that are willing to learn and put in the effort keep seeing material worth waiting for.

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