Coverflow for data

1 minute read

The current Discover magazine is running an interview with international health researcher Hans Rosling. A man with a tremendous resumé, Rosling also has a blog tracking his research and public lectures.

His most recent venture was the development of the Trendalyzer software, which is a really cool way to represent changing data over time. The link goes to a demo site, preloaded with world demographic data. I can't wait until the software goes public.

Here's what Rosling had to say about the project:

I explained [to my students] that we have a continuum of life conditions in the world -- we can't put countries into two groups. But when I showed them graphs of this [with time as one axis], it didn't impact them.
Then in 1994, I got the idea to show each country as a bubble, with economic factors on one axis and child survival on the other. My son strated writing the code that made the bubbles move through time, and his wife joined as designer. When you show time as an x-axis, you violate the way we think. But when you show time as graphic movement, as animation, people suddenly understand.

The graphs are startling. I will say that it's not obvious to me that you can tell the difference between linear and geometric growth by watching the moving bubbles -- in other words, while they make people intuitively understand the change, they may hide important details of process. But for the audiences Rosling is addressing, the distinction is unimportant:

So far, we have had a major hit with two target groups: children under 12 and heads of state. What they have in common is that you have only 5 to 10 seconds to impress them.

I'm thinking that a 10-second timeflow graph in a presentation will always beat the static version when time is an axis. Imagine tooth MD and BL diameters represented in many species over time...