Have you heard the one about mushroom leaders? They keep their workforce in the dark and feed them ****. Yes, it’s a joke, but most of us have probably come across organisations where knowledge is power, and where leaders refuse to share that knowledge more widely.

Fortunately, though, new data visualisation tools are making it harder and harder to keep everyone in the dark. And many  organisations are seeing the benefits of leading their workforce out into the sunlit uplands of knowledge and information-sharing.

Insights come from people

The key to data visualisation is that it helps people to understand data. Big data is all very well, but it is only information. And information is not knowledge. To turn data into knowledge requires insights, and they don’t come from the data without help.

In a Gartner survey, 56% of respondents said that one of their top three challenges with big data was working out how to get value from it. Cue data visualisation.

A picture really can tell a thousand words. A tweet with a picture attached is far more likely to be shared than one without. Infographics and maps are popular for a reason: they help us to make sense of our world in a very straightforward way, and humans are biologically programmed to like things that make sense. Look at the way that we search for ‘meaning’ in our lives.

You could argue that data visualisation is really just tapping into that search for meaning. The beauty of data visualisation tools, as opposed to the many and varied data analytical tools that have gone before, is that they are designed for everyone in the organisation to use, not just data scientists. Insight is now freely available to all, and it’s turning out to be something of a revolution.

Data visualisation helps in many different spheres

You might think that a public library doesn’t need to understand customers. People come in, borrow books, and go away, right? Wrong. Brooklyn Public Library has found huge benefit in using analytics and data visualisation to work out which customers use which services where. It has meant that staff in particular branches can see what their own customers are using. Staff can then focus what they do, from the resources they request, through training programmes they choose to provide, to the displays they create, to support their customers.

What visualisation has done is enable all staff—highly technically literate or not—to make sense of data, and use it to improve what they do. And providing what customers want, and helping to solve their problems, is extremely motivating.

But data visualisation is being used in other more unexpected ways too.

For example, a new project has pulled together thousands and thousands of social media sources to create a picture of Broadway. Photos from Instagram, FourSquare data, Twitter posts, all are grist to the mill that allows users to explore Broadway as they have quite literally never seen it. What’s it for? Not sure. But it’s interesting, and shows the potential of being able to view data in very different ways. The old idea of ‘slice and dice’ takes on new meaning with this visualisation.

Data visualisation is also being used to help solve crimes. Technology originally used for video games is being used to scan crime scenes and recreate them. This is used to reconstruct events, with CCTV footage and witness statements, and so help to solve the crimes. The software can even reconstruct the trajectories of bullets, and the technique has been used to secure at least one conviction in a gun crime. Similar techniques can be used in autopsies and post mortems to produce visual reports.

Is knowledge power?

Perhaps the idea that knowledge is power is not so far wrong. But with data visualisation, a better term might be ‘empowerment’. The new breed of data analytics and visualisation tools mean that everyone can share insights about what’s happening and what needs to be done as a result. And that leads to a desire to act, and increased motivation.

In other words, data visualisation is starting to ‘cut out the middle man’ and empower individuals to act directly. Psychologists have long recognised that being empowered to act is motivating. It’s probably not surprising that organisations that have introduced data visualisation tools are seeing increased productivity and motivation. The only surprise is that more are not leaping on the bandwagon.

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