Undercover economist Tim Harford decries data visualisation dazzle

Misinformation can be beautiful. Tim Harford (pictured), author of The Undercover Economist book series and presenter of Radio 4’s statistics More or Less programme, says 200 years of statistical science should not be cast aside for the blandishments of big data.

Harford, a senior columnist at the Financial Times, cautioned delegates at Teradata’s recent Universe conference in Prague against falling too easily for the “dazzle” of data visualisation. While infographics enthusiasts, such as David McCandless, posit that information is beautiful, Harford encourages his readers and listeners to dig beneath the surface.

His Prague talk took its inspiration from the zebra-like dazzle camouflage applied to allied ships in the First World War to evade torpedo attack from German submarines. Data visualisation often functions like that, he contends.

Harford, the son of a long-time reader of Computer Weekly, advises IT leaders to step back and think hard about the purposes of the data collection and analysis projects they undertake.

“It’s slightly presumptuous of me to suggest an answer here,” he says. “But what I’d say is one should treat this kind of analysis as an experiment. What are you trying to learn? What are the costs if the project doesn’t achieve what you are hoping for? And what are the benefits if it does succeed?

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