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(Dis)information Visualisation
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 17]

The recent presidential elections in USA, that at the moment of writing this article, are still undecided, have serve to outline how information visualisation can become dis-information visualisation and can play a key role in something as important as the future of a nation.

Effectively, the ballot in the state of Florida has poured rivers of ink due to the very tight (327 votes on 5 million at this moment) results of the vote count, that make this state decisive in the presidential election.

In this situation, the unfortunate design (see for example the page of Boston.com) ) of the Palm Beach County punchcard has become the center of attention, as it appears to have diverted some thousands of votes from Gore to Buchanan.

The punchcard has several defects. The most important is that of presenting the names of the candidates in an alternative way left and right of a unique line of holes, making a zigzag. The circles to punch are aligned so that the second circle corresponds to first candidate to the left (Buchanan) and the third circle corresponds to the second candidate to the right (Gore). You can see a detailed analysis in the page of Dan Bricklin  

It appears, after the Orlando Sentinel, that the supervisor of the elections in Palm Beach decided to increase the size of the letters of the punchcard to correspond to the eyesight of the elderly population of Palm Beach County. This made it impossible to put all the pairs of candidates on one page, so he decided to put it in the above mentioned fashion. The result was the opposite to what was expected.

Leaving out the fact that a small usability test among the elderly had avoided many headaches, what is important in this case is the potential for disinformation that Information Visualisation has.

As Edward Tufte points out in his book "Visual Explanations" in the chapter on explaining magic, "to create illusions is to engage in disinformation design, to corrupt optical information, to deceive the audience".

Through a delightful chapter Tufte unveils the strategies used by magicians to disinform the audience and the excellent and informative diagrams use to explain the realisation of some tricks.

This way, following Tufte, the two primary principles to achieve illusion, i.e. confusion, are suppressing context and preventing reflective analysis.

"Never tell your audience beforehand what are you going to do" and "never perform the same trick twice on the same evening".

That, reverted, provide us with two powerful principles:

  • Explain from the beginning the objectives and their context (what the problem is, why is it important, what is the conclusion)
  • Allow reflection by presenting both detail and general view, approaching the problem from different angles.

Finally, like all the magicians, rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. That is to say, make a usability testing of what you have designed. Make sure that there's no possibility of confusion and that the design works under all the circumstances in which it has to function.

Will it happen that the presidential elections of the most powerful democracy on Earth will have to be decided by an involuntary conjuring trick?

Note: One of our subscribers, James A. Wise, CEO of Integral Visuals, Inc., wanted to make a remark regarding the previous issue: 

"While the name ThemeScapeTM is trademarked by a specific company, the technique itself, for building a thematic or sedimentary landscape, is not proprietary, with parts of it described in various prior publications and presentations". A complete description with previous references can be found in his recent article:

Wise, J.A. "The Ecological Approach to Text Visualization". Journal of the American Society for Information Science. 1999, Vol. 50(13): 1224-1233.

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