Sunday, May 15, 2011


The Washington Monthly - The Magazine - The Information Sage:

Edward Tufte occupies a revered and solitary place in the world of graphic design. Over the last three decades, he has become a kind of oracle in the growing field of data visualization—the practice of taking the sprawling, messy universe of information that makes up the quantitative backbone of everyday life and turning it into an understandable story. His four books on the subject have sold almost two million copies, and in his crusade against euphemism and gloss, he casts a shadow over the world of graphs and charts similar to the specter of George Orwell over essay and argument.

Tufte is a philosopher king who reigns over his field largely because he invented it. For years, graphic designers were regarded as decorators, whose primary job was to dress up facts with pretty pictures. Tufte introduced a reverence for math and science to the discipline and, in turn, codified the rules that would create a new one, which has come to be called, alternatively, information design or analytical design. His is often the authoritative word on what makes a good chart or graph, and over the years his influence has changed the way places like the Wall Street Journal and NASA display data.

In policy circles, he has exerted a quiet but profound influence on those seeking to harness the terabytes of data flowing out of government offices. In recent years, several large American cities, including New York, Oakland, and Washington, D.C., have opened up entire universes of municipal statistics, giving birth to a cottage industry of programs and applications that chart everything from the best commuting routes to block-by-block crime patterns. And under the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive of 2009, the federal government has been releasing scores of downloadable data sets. In the public realm, data has never been more ubiquitous—or more valuable to those who know how to use it. “If you display information the right way, anybody can be an analyst,” Tufte once told me. “Anybody can be an investigator.”