Visualize It: Uncertainty

As I explored the work of data visualization experts and practitioners in an Introduction to Information Visualization class in the fall of 2017, the website and work of Alberto Cairo stood out to me. I first noticed his work on Twitter in the days leading up to Hurricane Irma, and then followed along to his blog The Functional Art. As I scrolled through the posts, I found a post where he links to an essay he wrote on the difficulty of portraying uncertainty with data visualizations.  This fascinating essay provided valuable insights and suggested a loose framework for creating visualizations that involve uncertainty.

He first offers some samples of possible ways to better display uncertainty in hurricane visualizations as well as examples of ways he thinks others have misconstrued uncertain data.  He posits: “A common misconception about visualization is that it consists of pictures that can be interpreted intuitively” (Cairo 2017, 5). Visualizations are not necessarily inherently simple to understand just because they are pictures. Cairo hypothesizes a “trickle down process” that leads to this critical misconception: “a) a pioneer invents a way of encoding and showing data, (b) a small community of experts adopts it, (c) eventually the media tentatively tries to use it as well, (d) by being constantly exposed to the new graphic form, the general public begins seeing it as intuitive.”  Unfortunately, just because a graphic becomes widely used does not mean it is easy for a layperson to understand. In order for them to better understand new graphics, they need increased “graphicacy,” as Cairo calls it, along the lines of literacy and numeracy.

He discusses the idea of a “Second Golden Age of Visualization,” begun in the 1960s and extending to today. “But this second Golden Age has two classes of citizens: experts and the rest of the population.  Experts like statisticians, scientists of all kinds, data journalists, business analysts, etc are reasonably well acquainted with the visualization vocabulary. The general public isn’t” (6).  Remembering that the general public are not experts in interpreting information is essential for understanding and teaching digital visual literacy and more.  

It is easy it is to jump to conclusions in real life situations and while reading and understanding visualizations. Perhaps a chart looks strikingly similar to one you have seen before, but this particular chart you are looking at now has one significant change. If you are not paying close attention or have not been studying how these visualizations are put together, you might miss a key detail crucial to the understanding of the data presented.

To better support the general public in grappling with uncertainty in visualization (and frankly in the world), Cairo offers three ideas for consideration:

  1. Discuss and visualize uncertainty when uncertainty is a crucial component of a truthful and informative message.
  2. Use modern methods of representation of uncertainty but include little explanations of how to read and interpret them.
  3. Embrace simplicity (8-9).

These suggestions could be a great framework, perhaps used in conjunction with other established criteria, for critiquing designs dealing with potentially misleading or confusing information.  He provides them as a starting point for making these data visualization tools more accessible and easily understandable.

Cairo closes his essay with a reminder about how visualizations need context and how visualizations can bring clarity to uncertainty: “The most effective messages are often those that combine the verbal–someone explaining the information to you with patience and care–and the visual, an aid that takes care of part of the mental effort of picturing all those figures and memorizing them (12).”  His exploration of the uncertain world and visualizations provided much food for thought.

Work Cited:

Cairo, Alberto. 2017. “Uncertainty and graphicacy: How should statisticians, journalists, and designers reveal uncertainty in graphics for public consumption?” Power from Statistics.

Sarah Davis is a Bilingual Youth Librarian at a public library in Oklahoma and an MLIS student at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa.

To read other posts in this “Visualize It” series, click here for the Visualization tag.

1 reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s