Presenting Data and Information with Edward Tufte

This past Friday, I had the opportunity to attend a one day course, Presenting Data and Information, presented by Edward Tufte. Considered by many to be a pioneer in the field of modern data visualization, this was an opportunity I could not pass up.  After all, how frequently do you get the opportunity to meet one of the founders of a specific discipline in person?

The course was presented in a single-day format, taking place in a large ballroom in the Buckhead Westin Hotel.  For a price of $380, the course included a full day of lecture as well as paperback copies of Tufte’s four books:

If you didn’t mind waiting in line, you could have one or two of the books autographed as well.

Registration / Opening
The course opened with registration at which time you received your copies of the above books.  Following registration was an on your own study hall period in which you could read selected passages from the books to prepare for the lecture, or wait in line to have books autographed.

Upon entering the main ballroom, I got an idea of just how many people had signed up for the course.  While I don’t have a count, I’d estimate it was easily at least 500 people, including a couple of SQL Server User Group people).  Based on the occupied seats, I don’t think it was sold out, but it looked to be pretty close.

Course – First Half
Upon the conclusion of registration and study hall, the actual course itself began.  Tufte opened with a video series showing a visualization of music notes on screen as they’re played (think Guitar Hero).  Following the video introduction, Tufte launched into a detailed review of the NOAA weather forecast pages followed by a detailed review of ESPN world series and Superbowl score boxes.  The key takeaways from a design standpoint were a preference for a single display page, cleanly laid out, with a large number of links present rather than drilling down into pages and sub pages.

Once or twice while proceeding through sections, the attendees were asked to read a section out of the included books in silence.  This happened two or three times during the first half of the presentation.  The complete silence of the room seemed a bit awkward and more something you’d expect in a typical classroom setting.

The first half wrapped up with a video showing the Swiss Mountain topographic maps (of which Tufte views as some of the greatest visualizations created) as well as a visualization technique utilizing wave forms and video of standing water.  I’ll admit, I don’t understand that enough to even try to explain it, and the explanation given was very brief.  The topics covered in this section are covered on his website in a fair amount of detail.

Following the conclusion of the first half, we were released for lunch on our own.  Which, for me, meant walking across the street to the nearby Lenox Mall.

Course – Second Half
After returning from lunch, the second half of the course began.  This is where I feel like things started to really fall apart for the course in terms of relevancy as well as wandering topics.

The first topic delved into after lunch was about an hour segment on general tips on how to give a presentation as well as general tips on how to be an audience member for a presentation.

Following the talk on presentations, Tufte referenced a large number of ancient data visualizations (covered in his books) and had frequent breaks for silent reading on the topics.  Additionally, he covered his fondness for Google Image Search as well as a Chrome Extension he worked on which creates “quilts” of images from Google Image searches.

Finally, after a bit of ranting about operating systems and the organizational paradigms of modern computer user interfaces, it was time for some closing remarks on the benefits of ending a presentation early and the course was concluded.

Final Thoughts
The course was certainly an interesting experience.  Hands down, I appreciate the opportunity to meet a well-respected pioneer in the field of data visualization (which is pretty incredible on its own) as well the opportunity to pick up some additional reading material since I didn’t yet own any of Tufte’s books (though I do own Stephen Few’s 3-book series already)

The first couple hours of the course I think were decent, even if it does follow the same format that is has for many years now but I think it went downhill pretty quickly from there.  It’s tough to criticize someone who is taking the time to try to teach you something (even if they are getting paid to do so), but at the same time, I feel like the course could have been so much more.

Rather than general presentation tips (which really, anybody can teach), I would have loved to learn about some of the unique things which Tufte brings to the table.  Being a pioneer in the modern era of data visualization, Tufte is uniquely qualified to teach about his experiences in the 80’s and beyond getting the field rolling.  I’d have loved to hear about things he tried that worked, things that didn’t work, and what kind of challenges there were along the way.  After all, if you could go to a talk given by Henry Ford on bringing the modern assembly line and automobile into their own, wouldn’t you?

Another topic I really would have liked to have seen covered would be an in depth comparison of good visualizations vs. bad visualizations as well as the psychology behind those techniques — things that Stephen Few tends to touch on heavily in his works.

When its all said and done, I’m happy that I attended the course.  I’d have a difficult time recommending it to others, primarily due to how quickly the content goes downhill and its subsequent relevancy, but for some there is benefit in the experience — after all, its a chance to meet a pioneer.  And hey, there are books.