Pretty pictures: Can images stop data overload?

By Fiona Graham
Technology of business reporter, BBC News

Mindlab experiment
Image caption,
Brain scan: Research suggests that one way to avoid being overloaded by data is by presenting it visually rather than text or numbers

Sitting at your desk in the middle of the day, yet another email notification pops up in the corner of the screen, covering the figures you're trying to digest in the complicated spreadsheet in front of you.

Your laptop is open on the desk next to you with another set of figures you need - meanwhile you're frantically tabbing through different documents on the main screen.

You have a meeting in 20 minutes and you suddenly feel as if you're swimming in a sea of impenetrable data, and you're starting to sink.

Welcome to the 21st Century workplace, and "data overload".

Under siege

You're not alone.

Dr Lynda Shaw is a neuroscience and psychology lecturer at Brunel University in the west of London.

"I've been interviewing a lot of senior businesspeople lately, and they're actually hiding... because they're frightened they're going to be asked questions they can't answer, so they're delaying making really quite important decisions," she says.

"When we're inundated with emails, Twitter, Facebook, social media, search engines like Google, it's as if we're expected to know more than we actually do, and we can't retain that level of information, that bombardment.

"When we feel overwhelmed we start to delay making decisions."

Image caption,
Dr Lynda Shaw: The visual brain is this incredibly flexible and adaptable design to help us see and remember and make sense of everything around us

Dr Shaw says this is a symptom of the computer age.

"We've really seen this incredible amount of information flooding us constantly. The problem with information overload is really new to the human brain."

She says this ultimately has huge implications for us both personally, and in terms of business - with obvious implications for productivity.

"When we're in a stressful situation, cortisol, the stress hormone rises. One of the jobs of cortisol is to work with the neurotransmitters. So when it is up we experience memory loss, depression, high blood pressure "

And the rate at which we are bombarded with data on a daily basis is increasing exponentially.

According to Cisco's Visual Networking Index, average global IP traffic in 2015 will reach 245 terabytes per second, equivalent to 200m people streaming an HD movie at the same time every day.

Within the next three years, there will be nearly 15bn network connections via devices and nearly 3bn internet users - more than 40% of the world's population.

So short of switching off the PC and going out and doing something more interesting instead, what can we do about it?

Pretty as a picture

One answer may lie with the way data is presented to us.

In a lab in Sussex a group of people have had their brainwaves scanned while completing a series of tasks, individually and in groups, to see if data visualisation - presenting information visually, in this case a series of mind maps - can help.

The results showed that when tasks were presented visually rather than using traditional text-based software applications, individuals used around 20% less cognitive resources. In other words, their brains were working a lot less hard.

As a result, they performed more efficiently, and could remember more of the information when asked later. Working in groups, they used 10% less mental resources.

The research was carried out by Mindlab International, an independent research company that specialises in neurometrics - the science of measuring patterns of brain activity through EEG, eye tracking and skin conductivity, which tracks emotions.

"The key reason we do the work that we do is that most of our decision making, yours and mine, goes on in the subconscious, or auto pilot or whatever we call it. Our cognitive brain can't actually deal with the bombardment of messages that are streamed to our bodies constantly all the time," says Duncan Smith, Mindlab International's managing director.

Image caption,
Individuals and groups had their brainwaves monitored as they completed tasks using visual mapping software compared with traditional applications

The research was commissioned by work management software specialists Mindjet, and used their MindManager software. All participants were familiar with both this and traditional text based word-processing software, email etc.

"We did expect that visual mapping would perform better purely and simply because this is the way the brain is wired up. We don't work as a filling cabinet, we don't work in a linear fashion," says Mr Smith.

"If you present data visually it has much more impact and the brain finds it much easier to process."

Image caption,
A simple mind map created with MindManager

San Francisco-based Mindjet specialises in mind maps - diagrams that present ideas, words and any other form of data grouped round a central key theme. The company says 83% of Fortune 100 companies are using its products.

Mindjet's Chris Harman says the research was commissioned following a survey the company did at the end of 2011 which found two-thirds of people felt they were "drowning" in data.

"We thought we know the problem, what difference can we actually make?"

Visually stimulating

Data visualisation is not limited to mind maps - the current vogue for infographics is another way to present information in a non-linear visual fashion.

Data visualisation expert David McCandless's Information is Beautiful website showcases good examples of data design. gives designers a platform to upload and showcase work as well as providing tools to create your own. Google Fusion and d3.js create simple visual representations of data, Quantum GIS and OpenHeatMap use maps and data together. And there are many more.

Image caption,
Tableau Software lets users create data visualisations accessible from a central dashboard - like this graphic tracking oil wells

Phillipa Cardinal is post-production manager at Discovery Europe.

A large part of her job involves consolidating and analysing data. To do this she uses Tableau Software, which lets her create data visualisations accessible from a central dashboard.

"To me it's quite obvious when I'm exploring the data, things just pop out at you that you might not see if it was in a text-based environment," she says.

"Being able to consolidate all these different bits of data onto a dashboard that we use for reporting upwards to our senior management team, you're able to really tell a story with it.

"You want to make sure that the time they spend looking at the data is used effectively."

Francois Ajenstat is director of product management at Tableau Software. He says the benefits of data visualisation are obvious.

"The first is it can help you make sense of data - I think that's actually quite fundamental especially as the amount of data that is collected every single day is growing exponentially. I think we're collecting more data in the last year than has ever been created in history.

"How do you make sense of that? It's more than just getting a report, it's about being able to see it, and seeing it with your eyes and the visual element of your brain is actually very, very powerful.

"Seeing a number bars and a line you can infer very quickly what is going on versus if you just look at numbers."

Brain function specialist Dr Lynda Shaw says by using these tools and others to minimise the overload, the growth in data can be a positive thing for all of us.

"The visual brain is this incredibly flexible and adaptable design to help us see and remember and make sense of everything around us."

"If we can stop feeling overwhelmed ... we can actually start enjoying this information, and by enjoying it we might be able to increase our brain capacity because we're using it better. "

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