Ideas Worth Spreading
I expect that most of our readers are familiar with TEDTalks. The TED Conferences takes place annually and “bring together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).” Their talks are then published on their website, so that we mere mortals can experience them as well.
In the past I’ve mostly watched individual talks that others have pointed out to me, but today I took some time to explore the site and find things on my own. One of my discoveries was the “TED in 3 Minutes” series, which includes shorter talks. I particular liked “Arthur Benjamin’s formula for changing math education“. His idea, which I whole-heartedly agree with, is that high school math education should shift its focus away from calculus and onto statistics. Although calculus is integral (pun intended!) to higher math and sciences, most students will never need it. Probability theory, on the other hand, is immediately applicable to every student’s life. As we manage our finances or make medical decisions, it’s important for everyone to be able to intelligently assess risks and benefits.
To help spread all these ideas, the TEDTalks website has transcripts for all their videos. The transcripts allow the text of each talk to be searchable, and through the “interactive transcript” feature you can jump straight to the point in a video where given text appears. The “TED Open Translation Project” allows anyone to submit translations of these transcripts into other languages, to further spread these ideas beyond the English-speaking community.
With over 450 videos available, it’s difficult to know where to start watching TEDTalks. If you have a favorite talk or two, please let us know in the comments.
TED is absolutely amazing. The most well-known TED talk is probably the one by Hans Rosling (20 minutes) on changing patterns of country poverty and health which later led to Gapminder.
I also remember Pattie Maes (8 minutes) on digital overlays for the world and Neil Gershenfeld (20 minutes) on being able to create (almost) anything, using a fab lab (starts about halfway through–there are different, but also intriguing, ideas for the first half).
And, for a little humor, it turns out that Ze Frank has a TED talk, too.
I just watched the Hans Rosling talk earlier today and really enjoyed it. But I found it interesting how his final point was that just having visualization would open up new avenues of inquiry. I’ve seen Gapminder before but never got very interested in it because I didn’t really know what to look for. I thought it was interesting from a technological perspective, but it didn’t tell me much about history/society/etc. Watching his talk today, I finally understood why having those visualization is so powerful. But to me, at least, they’re powerful as a way to illustrate a point. The mere existence of visualization didn’t do anything for me until someone else showed me what to look at. All of which is to say, that although visualization is a great tool, it still takes a lot of insight to know what questions to ask.
I haven’t watched any of the others you’ve mentioned. I’ll add them to my list!
I agree–that in most cases, visualization is most effective at presenting something that you have already discovered, revealing what you know to be there. However, I think that easy, interactive visualization tools (my prime example is Spotfire, which is excellent, but unfortunately not free) make it possible to use visualization as a tool for discovery, because they make it easy to change to different views of data and see patterns at a glance. In fact, I think that this is the key to using visualization for discovery–how it lets you summarize a lot of information easily; and the easier and more interactive it is, the more possible it is to use this capability to discover things you didn’t know before. Put another way, the easier it is to ask a question, the less insight you need about what questions to ask. Web-based visualization sites like ManyEyes or the Gapminder-like OECD Factbook eXplorer seem to be a good way of making knowledge more accessible. Insight will always make you more effective, but easy visualizations can enhance whatever insight you already have.