Visualisation is the new vogue in economics – and I think it’s official. I’ve been going on about Hans Rosling, Gapminder and Edward Tufte in the past, and now Rosling’s even been named Foreign Policy’s #96 top global thinker. Going by the top ten, that might not be a very wonderful list to be on, although it has a big chunk of economists in general. But I digress.
Visualisation is the new ‘cool’ thing to do in economics. The World Bank has their own visualiser and has even splurged on direct developer tools and on-line data simulation (called iSimulate, so one might expect the odd R-rated joke, as with the iPad). Both the IMF and even Eurostat has joined the bandwagon, and the UK government is promoting data visualisation for its civil servants to use in the public sector. This is following a private sector trend, admittedly started by the Gapminder project, which is still – I think – the best of the lot, which explains why Google bought it back in 2007. But google operates their own visualiser straight on the search engine, and the Guardian runs a big data storage and visualisation site, to which David McCandless, of the excellent Information is Beautiful Blog contributes and writes for.
So where does all this visualisation lead? Well… for the moment it is a lot of fun and data can be revealing. That said, it needs to be combined with insight and planning before it will be much use to the day-to-day economist I reckon. Davind McCandless’ new book The Visual Miscallaneum (which I got today) goes a long way to inspire our use of graphics. Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen books on Presentation and Design are good for helping us think about how to present (the first more so than the second I think). But the reality is that for the moment journals print graphs in black and white, with a bare minimum of design scope. And lets be honest, visualising the supply lines and bottlenecks in the confused and complicated Haitian (and similar) aid operations would probably be the most beneficial of all data visualisations – but that’s not being done, not yet at least.