Visualizing energy use

Mention computer graphics and most people think of realistic games, complex web sites, or the ease of setting one’s message in type and images with just a few clicks.  But there’s another use emerging, one that fascinates me: the graphic presentation of data. At the start of my graduate training, computer software could generate a box plot, a bar chart or a scatterplot by placing keyboard characters in about the right place within a box. When we could print clean smooth lines on a laser printer for a wide range of graphs, we seemed to have everything we needed.  Until now.

Average American's Annual Energy Consumption

Graphic design, especially in advertising, makes the message as much visual as verbal. Sometimes there are no words: the image itself tells the story. While newspapers quickly harnessed graphic design to their bar and line charts, the added images were more often distracting than helpful. The new infographics draw the viewer in, help her to make comparisons and come away with a solid understanding of the data.

I’ve been following Visual Economics and several graphics blogs for a while. Every so often, they present readily available data – in this case, government data – in a way that helps the reader get the bigger picture. This image of what types of energy the average American uses shows, for instance, that we have more chance of making an impact by focusing on our electricity use than by worrying about our one plane trip in the year. And it goes on to show us what sources are used to generate the electricity – again showing us that we might have more environmental impact (i.e., less coal-generated electricity) by reducing our electricity use than by doubling wind and solar power.

I haven’t yet come across any good books or training programs, but it’s quite clear that data analysis of the future is going to be as much graphic design as statistical processing. Those of us who are still competent to make a scatterplot on a typewriter have a lot of catching up to do.

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