Well, I must say I am a bit disappointed with the September issue of Stephen Few’s Visual Business Intelligence Newsletter. It discusses an important but much neglected topic, visualizing change through animation. Few’s paper was written for SAS Institute, and uses JMP, a statistical analysis product from them. From the screenshots, I wouldn’t say I am overly impressed. Animation requires interaction, and the only available interaction is the same that you get from any player (go, stop, step…). There seems to be no interaction with the data.[Update: this post discusses the paper, not the software, but you can take a look at the online demos here.]

Actually, Few discusses the patterns of change through time and how magnitude, shape, velocity and direction contribute to those patterns and how that can be displayed in traditional charts like line charts, but if you read it carefully there is not much discussion of animation itself. I guess he doesn’t really like to see “the state of Florida bounc[ing] around the bubble plot as time passes”. And who can blame him? The “trails” feature gives him the opportunity to return to a more stable ground in the form of “a single image”. It plots the entire time series in a single image, like the traditional line charts do, using a sequential range of color where lighter shades refer to the beginning of the series. I would say that Few tested the waters of animation and was not convinced.

I exemplified animation in a previous post on visualization of demographic information. As I wrote in that post, animation is useful only if a global pattern and perhaps sub-patterns emerge from the trend of multiple data points/series, a pattern that would be harder to spot if we had to browse over multiple charts. A global trend and some meaningful outliers can be seen for example in Hans Rosling’s presentation. From my point of view, it doesn’t really matters if “the state of Florida bounce around the bubble plot as time passes”. What matters is: how does Florida contribute to the overall pattern (assuming there is one)? Is it a well-behaved state? Is it an outlier? We don’t need animation to see how Florida changes, just like we don’t need a static chart to plot a single data point.

Let me quote the last paragraph:

“The stories that time-series data have to tell are often rich and important. They are much too important to remain unknown simply because we lack tools that can bring them to light.”

We do lack interactive tools. But for simple animations we can use Excel, as you can see in this draft example, and I am sure the Excel virtuoso Jon Peltier could come up with a great add-in…