Extreme Makeovers | FEATURE
Figure 1. BP’s exposure monitoring data for benzene (right) appeared on OSHA’s website in June 2010. One of Emery’s tudents at the University of Texas-Houston arranged BP’s data on a simple scatterplot and added lines to indicate the OSHA action level and PEL.
and time again. If I’m in the business
and I don’t know what you’re talking
about, how do you expect others outside
the profession to understand?
You know, we’re always criticized for
not communicating appropriately with
management. I think a lot of it has to do
with the way we present data.
TS: How often do you present data to
BE: I meet with my boss once a month,
and I make it a point to bring some sort
of one-page data display. Management
loves measures and metrics, because the
perception is if it’s being measured, it’s
being managed. So I always show up
with a graph on something.
I think the entire profession would
benefit if we could communicate better.
And I think this is one of the areas of
communication that we can improve.
TS: What are some common problems
with the visual presentation of EHS data?
BE: One of the big problems we have is
that we tend to rely on the automatic
formatting afforded by PowerPoint or
Excel or whatever software we’re using.
We’ll get the data and we’ll put it in
these cells, and hopefully we’ll get the
stuff in the right row, and at that point
we just stop. We shouldn’t rely on the
automatic formatting from these programs. We need to take a step back and
think about the story we’re trying to tell
with our data.
One of Tufte’s main precepts is to
maximize the “data-to-ink ratio.” What
he means is that most of the ink on a
piece of paper should talk about the
data, not all the stuff around it. Excel is
a good example of how not to do it:
when you make a graph in Excel, it au-
tomatically turns the background gray,
which tends to obscure the data. In most
of my graphics, the background is white.
The intent is to make the x-y axes and
the data the most notable features on the
piece of paper.
Digital Edition Special: Extreme Makeovers
The digital edition of this month’s Synergist features step-by-step examples of ways to improve
graphic displays. Look for the digital edition to reach your inbox by mid-December.
TS: In your presentation “Communicating
with Data,” you recommend using horizontal graphics. Why?
BE: The reason you want to turn graphs
sideways is that the human eye uses the
horizon as a timeline. It’s our natural inclination, so when we look at a graph,