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Can You See It?

Over the last fifty years or so, the graphic representation of information has established itself as a new form a communication in itself. Research calls this modern communication tool ‘graphicacy’. Today, it complements oracy, literacy and numeracy. A brilliant Ted Talk entitled The Simple Genius of a Good Graphic’ provides an entertaining history of graphicacy.

The quantity of information available to individuals has indeed been rising over the years, requiring a vast amount of data to be increasingly condensed through images to be digestible. Nowadays, there is no efficient communication without visual aids, including maps, photographs, charts or graphs. This is promoted by the fact that, unlike speaking, reading or counting, seeing is essentially effortless. In addition, the advent of the digital era has allowed for the commoditization of charts and pictures.

Big data is evidently contributing to the rise of graphicacy. Gartner pointed out in its 2016 ‘Magic Quadrant For Business Intelligence and Analytics Platforms’ that successful business intelligence and analytics vendors must enable users to analyze data ‘via the manipulation of chart images, with the color, brightness, size, shape and motion of visual objects representing aspects of the dataset being analyzed.’ The Ted Talk ‘Stunning Data Visualization in the AlloSphere’ illustrates the benefits from allowing scientists and engineers to visually explore complex data. For example, the ability to visualize the functioning of a brain by simulating a trip through it enables scientists to see new patterns which otherwise would not be identifiable.

When considering the above, it strikes me that the financial world is highly unsophisticated when it comes to the representation of data. Financial tables in the back of an annual report display a ton of information which is not put in any perspective. Detailed, almost inconsequential information is presented in the same format as critical elements. On the other end of the spectrum, footnotes containing valuable information are often barely noticeable. Visual representations used in investor or management presentations typically rely on visual aids from the stone ages. Divisions of entirely different sizes are presented with the same visual importance, as if they were equally relevant. The weak or uncertain performance of fractional businesses ends up hijacking earnings conference calls or discussions in M&A processes, torpedoing transactions.

The poor presentation of financial data contributes to obscuring information and the reality behind it since any sense of perspective is lost. Only the best trained eyes are able to form an opinion about the actual quality of a company’s financial performance. Incidentally, this is plainly inconsistent with the objective to create an efficient market allowing for the optimal allocation of resources.

It does not need to be that way. ‘The Beauty of Data Visualization’, another Ted Talk, illustrates how visual technologies can be used to improve the representation of any types of data, including financial data. Graphicacy can let data live and shine, giving people the ability to see things that have happened in the past, or will happen in the future.2 There lies a great opportunity for a better (financial) world.

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