Data and Visualization.

As the three of us embarked on this new data-mining project, we were the data scientist, the manager and the developer, who knew nothing about visualizations. We didn’t even want to do any visuals at first.

Then someone stumbled across the New York Times Obama Budget visual and the wheels started spinning. Pretty soon we had something like this of our own, and then it snowballed into a real project with quite a few interactive charts and visuals, all d3 based.

While developing all this, I started to wonder: why are the right visuals so incredibly effective in presenting data? Exactly what do the bubbles have that the tables don’t: it is the same data after all. I called upon phenomenology as it was first presented in Logical Investigations by Edmund Husserl’s  (because I haven’t made it any further in husserlian literature yet) to help me understand what is happening.

Husserl and Data Intuition

husserlThe core idea of Logical Investigations is that meanings in the broadest sense of the word (either what I “mean” when I express a thought, or simply say: “This is blue”, “His name is Neal”), exist as a class in itself. Not quite like entities in the platonic heaven of Ideas, but they are a class of some kind of entities, “logical entities” to be exact, in a sense that, just like logical constructs they exist independently of human perception or imagination of any kind.

This seems rather far-fetched at first, after all, through the entire history of philosophy we seem to have always started from sensory perception as the stepping stone towards
When in a presentation I write: “Should yellow patent classes intersect with the green ones?” a person out of context with my project, one without knowledge of patent taxonomy of any kind, can nevertheless have a basic grasp of what I mean: obviously I have somehow separated groups of patents into larger groups. assigned colors to them and now I want to know something about the properties of these groups. Again, the meaning does not seem to depend on perception or experience at all. In fact, most of the 1000 pages of Logical Investigations is spent combating those views. It is not as incredible as it sounds, though. Surely when I say “Paris is beautiful” or “Bed bugs are something you should never experience”, my listener, if she understands the English language, understands what I mean, even if she has never been to Paris, or, God forbid, been bitten by bed bugs. (In fact, when I had my first and I hope only encounter with them, it took me very little time to realize what is going on, even though nobody had warned me and I had never been bitten before that time).

According to Husserl our grasp of meaning is an act that has nothing to do with generating the meaning itself, and occurs when we direct ourselves towards the meaning. The word he uses is “intendieren”, to intend. Expression or understanding, are “intentional” acts in a sense that out of the entire universe of meanings we direct ourselves (“intend”) to a particular one (or a particular cluster) and bring it into focus.

The question still remains: what is the role of perception, or even imagination in all of this? After all, we do seem to think in pictures of sorts, and there is no denial: I understand “Paris is beautiful” or “Bed bugs suck” on a very different level if I have been to Paris or had a misfortune to sleep in the wrong bed.

So, Husserl distinguishes two classes of acts: signicativen (or signitiven ) and intuitiven (erfüllenden). Signifying and  intuitive (fulfilling). Signifying are all the acts where meaning is simply expressed, and intuitive are the acts where perception or imagination is used to “fill” the meaning with some content. When I say “Paris is beautiful”, or “This tree is green”, or “This is Neal”, my expressions are purely signitive, i.e. they just point in the direction of the meanings, “signify” them (from the root “sign”). If I show pictures of Paris (or rely on your imagination to picture Paris), point out of the window at the tree, introduce Neal, – I am now “filling” these pure meanings with intuitive content. Now what I mean actually takes shape. I don’t gain any more understanding, what I gain is insight: internal-sight.

The distinction is important. While all of meaning is expressed in signifying acts, it does not come to a full grasp, until it is intuited, seen in the mind’s eye.

I think these concepts are illustrated par excellence in the field of data visualization. In Husserl’s terminology we may have called it “data intuition”, or “data fulfillment”, or even “data insight”. There is enough meaning in the data itself, especially once data scientists go to work on it and extract trends, make predictions, etc. However, there is no “intuition” in all that. And without this intuition, it so happens, you cannot have a meaningful conversation with your user who may be a layman in the area of statistics, machine learning, data mining: your ideas are empty. You need to “fill” them with pictures. Moving and interactive pictures – better still.

And so we arrive at the definition of “data visualization” (according to Kant it is lucky in philosophical discourse to ever arrive at a definition, in a blog entry it must be nearly impossible):

Data visualization is an act of creating/perceiving presentations of certain aspects signified by data in an intuitive way.

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