How to communicate information—lessons from Edward Tufte’s 1-day workshop

Last Friday, I attended a workshop by Edward Tufte, a master of data visualization, in Denver. Here’s what I learned.

On showing only information; no junk: 

In a completely dark room inside the Hyatt hotel, Tufte started the workshop by showing a beautiful animation by the “Music Animation Machine“, a website created by Stephen Malinowski. Below is an animated example of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. In Tufte’s words: “there is no chart junk here”, i.e. everything you see is pure information that contributes to your understanding.

On effective writing:

If you want to have examples of effective information communication, look at sites that receive many viewers, such as New York Times or ESPN. What you’ll learn from them:

  • Always mention your sources
  • Include quotes from external experts
  • If you want to communicate just a few numbers, integrate them into your text; do not create “data junk”, i.e. small tables or bar charts to communicate just a few numbers
  • Create beautiful templates to communicate complex data, such as NYT’s visualization of Obama’s 2013 budget proposal

On better meetings:

Start each meeting by giving all participants a written briefing. Do not brief people by giving a presentation. We can process information more quickly through reading than speaking. (Also: don’t send the written document out in advance expecting meeting participants to read it. Create time in the meeting for people to read your information.) Jeff Bezos uses 6-page memos and 30 minutes of silent reading for all important meetings at Amazon.

So, when you next visit your doctor, do not tell them what’s the matter—write down your complaints in stead. When you finally get to meet with the doctor, give him your printed out complaints, and ask him to silently read it.

On combining words, drawings, and images:

We can process all kinds of information together. Our mind does not filter “words” from “images”. The reason we have text editors for words and Photoshop for images and Illustrator for drawings is that it’s easier for the software makers and possibly the creator, but definitely not for the reader.

Why are electric grids different than the internet?

Observation #1: Information is automatically stored; electricity is not

Digital information creation commonly includes storage. When you write an email or take a picture, the information you create is automatically stored in the recording device, in the cloud, or in a combination thereof. Because creation is paired to storage, information can be consumed at another time than it was produced. You don’t need to read a book as the author writes it.

For electricity, the story is different. When a flow of electrons is created it must be transported and consumed instantaneously. Today’s gas power plants or wind turbines – electricity generation devices – do not offer the possibility to store electricity for later use. Neither do fridges or microwaves – electricity consumption devices.

N.B. The notable exception to integration of information creation and storage are spoken conversations. When we chat, our voices are not automatically stored. (This is changing, though.) Non-digital forms of information – a written letter, a painting, a Beatles’ vinyl – are stored, but are not easily replicable (see the next observation).

Observation #2: Information can be copied; electricity can not

When you send me a postcard, I can read it once, ten times or a hundred times, without the quality or quantity of the information changing. The information can be viewed an infinite number of times. When you send me a digital postcard, not only can I read it infinitely, but others can read it an infinite number of times too. Digital information is endlessly replicable – its quality and quantity doesn’t change.

A quantity of energy can only be used once, much like a kg of gold can only be used once. The physical properties change when you use the electricity. But, gold can be reused. I can not conceive of ways to derive the services from electricity without using the electrons. This is a big difference to distribution of information.


Scalability of electricity, versus scalability of information

You can visualize this difference by envisioning a ratio that equals the number of times something is used over the number of times something is created.

For electricity, the consuming versus creating ratio can be no larger than 1. Every kWh of electricity generated can only be used once (or less, if it’s wasted somewhere between generation and consumption).

For information, the consuming versus creating ratio can be much larger than 1. Every line of words typed by you can be viewed by a billion users, who read it hundreds of times.

Observation #3: Digital information can have an enormous variation in value; electricity can not

This may be the most important insight of this entire post. For a given quantity of digital information – say, 10MB of sound – the quality can range from terrible (the sound of a jetplane if your goal is to relax) to outstanding (a symphony orchestra recording for the same goal). The value for that piece of information can range from negative (I’d pay you to remove the sound) to very valuable (worth €10 per iTunes Album). Combined with digital information’s replicability (the previous observation), the large variation in value explains why software can be worth hundreds of dollars (Adobe Suite) or nothing.

In my view, electricity does not have a large distribution of value. For a given quantity of electricity, the quality is more or less equal. There can be a difference in value, depending on whether the electricity is generated close to the location of desired use or far away and whether electricity is generated according to the user’s preferences or not, but this value difference is marginal compared to the value difference of information – in the order of tens of percents.