Meet Edward Tufte, the graphics guru to the power elite who is revolutionizing how we see data.
Illustrated by Merchant for the Brunswick Review
One day in the spring of 2009, Edward Tufte, the statistician and graphic design theorist, took the train from his home in Cheshire, Connecticut, to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with a few members of the Obama administration. A few weeks earlier, he had received a phone call from Earl Devaney, a former inspector general in the Department of the Interior, who is best known for leading that agency’s investigation of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Devaney had recently been appointed head of the Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency Board, the body created by the Obama administration to keep track of the $780 billion in federal stimulus money that has spread out across the country.
Whereas Devaney once led a team of professional investigators responsible for sniffing out waste, fraud, and abuse, he was now faced with a rather different, but related, task: designing a Web site. In the stimulus bill, Congress had called for the creation of “user-friendly visual presentations” of data that would allow the American public to watch over the disbursement of the giant funding package. This wasn’t exactly familiar territory for Devaney, a career lawman. Perhaps Tufte could offer some advice?
And so, that April, in an office building blocks from the White House, Tufte spent a few hours with Devaney looking at sketches of some of the displays the board was preparing. Devaney showed Tufte a prototype of Recovery.gov, the site that catalogs all the projects funded with federal stimulus money around the country. Thinking about it now, Devaney remembers that the proposed pages were full of “classic Web site gobbledygook, with lots of simple pie charts and bar graphs.” Tufte took one look at the Web site mockups that the board’s designer had prepared and pronounced them “intellectually impoverished.”
It was a classic Tufte moment: a spontaneous and undiplomatic assessment that immediately struck everyone in the room, even the designer himself, as undeniably true. The site would get a wholesale redesign. The model, as Tufte explained it, should be the Web site of a major newspaper, with Devaney and his staff as reporters and editors. “I told them that it isn’t an annual report,” Tufte told me later. “It shouldn’t look stylish or slick. It’s about facts.” As Tufte and Devaney talked, a number of staffers gathered in the hall, waiting for the meeting to finish. “The guys from the IT department had lined up outside my door to shake his hand and say they met the guy,” Devaney remembers.
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.”
Tufte is equal parts historian, critic, and traveling revival preacher. For a few days each month, he goes on the road to teach a course called “Presenting Data and Information” in hotel ballrooms and convention centers. One afternoon, shortly after his meeting with Devaney, Tufte was teaching his course in the downstairs ballroom at the Marriott hotel in Seattle, Washington. There were 400 people in the crowd. Tufte, who is sixty-nine, and has a thinning slash of silver hair and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses that hang off his nose, was standing at the front of the room. He was wearing a wireless microphone, and held a copy of a small map above his head.
“This,” he said, “is War and Peace as told by a visual Tolstoy.” The map is about the size of a car window, and follows the French invasion of Russia in 1812. It was drawn in 1869 by a French engineer named Charles Joseph Minard. On the left of the map, on the banks of the Niemen River, near Kovno in modern-day Lithuania, a horizontal tan stripe represents the initial invasion force of 420,000 French soldiers. As they march east, toward Moscow—to the right, on the map—they begin to die, and the stripe narrows.
The map itself is elegant and restrained, but it tells the story of a sprawling, bloody horror: cold and hunger begin to finish off whatever French soldiers the Russians haven’t killed in battle. As the French army retreats, the tan line turns black and doubles back on itself to the left, or to the west, away from Moscow. A series of thin gray lines intersect the path of the army, showing the winter’s cruel temperatures. On November 9 it is 9 degrees below freezing. On November 14, it is 21 degrees below.
Then, on the 28th of November, a catastrophe: in a rush to cross the Berezina River, half of the retreating army, 22,000 men, drowns in the river’s icy waters. The black line, already thinned to a fraction of its initial size, abruptly reduces by half. Finally, in late December, six months after they set off, the surviving French soldiers cross back over the Niemen River. The map shows their number: 10,000 men. Ultimately, only one in forty-two soldiers survives the doomed campaign.
Tufte pointed to the far left of the map, where the tan and black lines intersect. “And it is there,” he said, “at the beginning and at the end of the campaign, where we have a small but poignant example of the first grand principle of analytical design”: above all else, always show comparisons.
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