After a few years of fighting the good fight, charting and data site Verifiable closes shop in August. The idea spawned during an Edward Tufte workshop and developed into an effort to provide a tool that people could come to for facts by the numbers.
Founder Stuart Roseman reflects on an example during the workshop, that highlighted an important point with data:
We were sold. It was so obvious and clear. We would make a tool that would ensure that this kind of mistake would never be made again. Tufte hammered this point home for us by saying that the tool he always wanted, one that enabled the user to make a presentation of the evidence regardless of the type of evidence, still did not exist. Ah Ha! We would make that tool. As my friend Dennis (the hardware engineer) used to say, it is just a bunch of do loops – how hard could that be?
Uh oh. Hearing that last sentence alone would worry me. Roseman concludes towards the end:
The guys were great. The users who I did meet were great. The project was a lot of fun for a lot of the time. It was just too hard for both us and the users. And frankly, I am becoming convinced that “truth” can not be boiled down into numbers. There is always context. And without the context, the numbers don’t help nearly as much as you would like. As a geek this is hard to admit.
Bingo. There’s this idea that statistics is nothing but number crunching, and visualization is lots of graphs, but if that were the case, we wouldn’t be looking to The New York Times all the time for stellar graphics. There’s a certain amount of storytelling involved, which helps people understand the numbers.
Finance sites work, because their charts directly impact how much money ends up in the bank. Personal data sites work (sort of), because people have a certain amount of awareness about their actions. In this context, the peaks and valleys in your graphs have that added layer of meaning.
Graphs outside people’s expertise lack that layer, so what your general audience really wants is someone to explain what the graph shows or rather, the information in the data.
Verifiable tried to provide the tools so that people could build that layer of meaning on their own. Unfortunately, people aren’t quite ready for that.