Visualizing Complexity: Data is Useless, Wisdom is Priceless

1 pm CT, June 26, 2018

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Now fully immersed in the waxing years of the Data Age, the world is generating more data by volume each year than was created cumulatively by our species in all prior years combined. All facets of daily life are increasingly interconnected within a dynamic and ever-shifting landscape of data collection mechanisms. Phones are no longer communication devices--they are data acquisition pipelines. And yet, the overwhelming majority (some claim 99%) of data goes unanalyzed, unprocessed, and unused.

I argue that advanced visualization techniques can greatly enhance the utility (and adoption) of analytics, simulations, and other complex data endeavors. Beautiful, highly-functional visualization environments convert messy, intimidating data outputs into clear, concise, and actionable insights across a wide range of audiences. By improving the methods by which the world leverages data to inform more poignant decisions, we can confront resilience risks and solve complex problems across a wide range of industries, sectors, geographies, and cultures with agility, efficiency, and effectiveness never before possible. Data is useless, but wisdom is priceless. To generate meaningful outcomes, data (bits) must be converted to information (intelligence), then to knowledge (actionable insights), then to wisdom (decisions which created proven results). I offer a framework for critical steps in crafting a visualization to make a successful conversion from data to wisdom—from scattered digital bits to real-world change.


With a deep history of analyzing, representing, and modulating complex systems as an architect and urban designer by trade, Brian Barnes is Director of Strategic Markets at RS21. He is well known as a practicing advocate for data-driven decision-making and of advanced digital visualization techniques as mechanisms to simplify and address complex human challenges across multiple combinations of anthropogenic and natural environments and the many interconnected systemic forces which shape them. Brian began his career in complex analytics in Los Angeles at UCLA’s world renowned NOW Institute (a research partnership between UCLA and Morphosis Architects). Currently, he oversees strategy and conceptual development for many of RS21’s major exploratory analytics and visualization initiatives in young and burgeoning markets from community health to supply chain resilience. Additionally, Brian remains active in academia as an instructor in representation of visual information for architectural and urban design, as well as private-sector advisor to the Computational Ecologies Master of Science in Architecture track at the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Urban Planning.