One Death is a Tragedy; a Million is a Statistic
Photograph by *Your Guide
I posted a comic from xkcd last week that implied graphs and data lead to a decline in love. I didn't really think much of it, but Jim commented that an episode from This American Life (episode 88: Numbers), was very much related to the topic of personal data and what we often miss out on as a result. The lead-in to the show reads:
Numbers lie. Numbers cover over complicated feelings and ambiguous situations. In this week's show, stories of people trying to use numbers to describe things that should not be quantified.
This reminded me of Joseph Stalin's well known quote, "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic." It's a horrible thing to say, but when it comes to data visualization and analysis, it's true a lot of the time. We have a huge dataset and we have to extract information from it. In the process though, we forget that every one of those numbers has real non-numeric value to it. There are emotions and feelings. Life is complex. Data represents life, and therein lies the purpose and meaning of FlowingData.
People often mistake my use of "flowing data" as purely meaning data that frequently updates - that it moves in some way like a river, and that's certainly part of it, but there's more to it than that. There's life in that river. There are undercurrents, erosion, growth, curves and bends, temperature changes, rapids, waterfalls, and water that is practically at a standstill. Where does the river begin, and where does it pour out into? Where did that river come from? How old is it? How young is it?
Data visualization should portray this "life" in data that it represents. This calls for visualization that goes beyond standard graphs, that seem to capture the factual part of the data and disregard all else a lot of the time. The numeric value of a data point is only part of the story. Don't forget the who, what, when, where and why.
This is not to say that there is no value in personal data collection as told in Act 3: When Days Are Numbered and sort of the running motif through the entire episode. There is plenty of meaning and purpose behind the numbers themselves; however, when we collect data - this self-surveillance - we're not really after the numbers themselves. We are interested in what is behind the numbers. The life. The emotion. How we feel. People track their weight, because they feel fat when they are overweight. When they feel fat, they feel insecure. Without the emotion, the number doesn't mean much, does it? It's best to keep that in mind when we work with data.
Stalin was wrong. One death is a tragedy, yes, but one million deaths? That's one million tragedies.