Data, Dots & Detail

On November 18, 2014, in Analytics, Big Data, Data, Heather Bussing, HRExaminer, by Heather Bussing

There is a very cool website that was created for fun, but demonstrates some basic principles of data really well.  The initial image is a large dot. When you run your curser over a dot, it divides into smaller dots. The dots continue to break into smaller, more nuanced dots that eventually reveal a picture.

Like this:

koala 1

koala 2

If you were to run the process in reverse, you would start out with pixels of information arranged into a pattern that creates a picture. But as you put them together, they lose important detail, until all that is left is a single dot.

Every time we generalize about people or information or ideas, bits of detail get lost. There is a zen saying: To define something is to limit it. A picture’s worth a thousand words is a similar idea. The very act of putting something complex and nuanced into a more general description, diminishes what is possible to convey about the thing itself. Representations are never complete.

All data is a representation of some thing else. And data then generates data about itself. With all this new information, it’s easy to lose sight of the thing we are measuring, analyzing, and seeking to understand.

A map will tell you what road to take, but it can never explain about the tree that fell in the road. Part of that has to do with the fact that maps are representations of something far more complex and detailed. And part of it is that maps, and all data, tell you about the past.

Generalizations and representations are not bad things. They are required to communicate almost anything. And generalizations are efficient and can bring broader understanding of even bigger ideas, events, or things. But it’s important to remember that information gets lost along the way.

So next time people are talking about big data, how it will change our ability to see things, and how all this information will increase our potential knowledge, know that it’s sort of true. Then remember these pictures and ask yourself: which dots am I looking at?


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And if you want to try it yourself, the website is created by Vadim Ogievetsky

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