Another masterpiece of Edward Tufte
Data taken out of context is boring, if not misleading, and nearly always worthless. Nonetheless, most data is presented as a single, isolated value: a big company's turnover, the current unemployment rate or the last reading of a stock quote. The necessary context however can be povided easily, with the help of word-sized graphics, so-called "sparklines", a term coined by their inventor Edward Tufte.
Thus, an elusive figure like the Euro's exchange rate movements against the US-Dollar becomes a vivid, data-intense measure when given in its historical context from its introduction on January, 1st 1999 as bank money until today 1.30.
For the equivalent of a single word, the embedded graphic gives us the worth of six years of monthly Euro exchange rate readings. Defying its tiny size, the graphic depicts the year long development in a clear and concise manner, including the 25 % loss after the introduction of the euro banknotes and coins on January, 1st 2002.
The same principle is used when reasoning about win/loss sports statistics. Due to their word-like quality, sparklines allow for writing with data. The overall performance of the German premier league soccer team FC Bayern which puts it in first place in 2004/2005 is one out of many examples. The dry Munich weather in the last 36 days with only few mm of rain is another.
The data-intense and design-simple concept of word graphics presents an aggregate pattern along with plenty of local detail. Operationally sufficient quantification is provided by the numerical value for the most recent reading.
Embedded in Management Information Systems, sparklines efficiently add context and reduce the recency bias prevalent in data analysis and decision-making. Sparklines enrich data displays on mobile devices and are a prerequisite for effective mobile controlling concepts.
Arranged in table format, sparklines compress astonishing amounts of data in small spaces. Without turning pages the eye can concentrate on comparisons and detecting patterns, gaining insight in doing so. In the weather table below, the eye easily overlooks a matrix of 216 data points.
The following table shows the final standings of the 2006/2007 season of the German premier soccer league (Bundesliga). An upward whisker depicts a won match, a downward whisker a lost one. The table remains concise and meaningful, even at a small font size. Since the sparklines use up so little space, the entire season's course can be shown for each of the teams, making for 612 results in one chart.
Season 2006/2007, matchday 34
|6||1. FC Nürnberg||34||11||15||8||43:32||11||48|
|10||Hertha BSC Berlin||34||12||8||14||50:55||-5||44|
|16||1. FSV Mainz 05||34||8||10||16||34:57||-23||34|
P = Place, GP = Games Played, W = Win, D = Draw, L = Loss, GD = Goal Difference, TP = Total Points. The lines mean: Champions League, Champions League qualification, UEFA cup; relegation.
What are sparklines?
"intense, simple, wordlike graphics"
More on the web
To learn more about the concept and to participate in a vivid and thoughtful discussion about sparklines, refer to Edward Tufte, the inventor of the sparkline concept.