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Data visualization by example: Real-world uses

Data visualization technologies have advanced at warp speed. While Edward Tufte might be able to break data visualization down into its basic elements, for those of us who don’t live the topic, it can be hard to keep up and, more importantly, put these new technologies to work. Just to show it can be done and is being done, I’m briefly sharing some real-world use cases in this post.

Simply put, it’s all about the visuals, or every picture telling a story. My love of graphics is one reason why I’m a regular reader of the Wall Street Journal. I like WSJ’s front-page news crib sheet and financial news; but I’m really into their charts and graphics. I find that I’m constantly cutting out charts that I see and saving them as examples of a creative way to display complicated information. (Yes, I’m the one guy still reading the paper version.) This story by Steve Myers outlines how media outlets are trying to leverage visualization to better tell their stories.

As testers, data visualization helps us not only in communicating our findings, such as when performance testing, it can also help us recognize problems. For example, if you have a bunch of data — database transactions, source code, network traffic, log files, etc. — and you’re looking for trends or possible issues, figuring out different ways to graph that information can help you understand what you’re looking at.

Because it can be difficult to talk about hard and fast rules for when to visualize your data, I thought I might instead offer some examples I’ve seen of creative uses of visualization:

  • I’ve seen a development team create an animated view of their source code commits that you could run a visual animation of commits over a repository, project, or branch for a period of time that you set. Why’s that a big deal? Because you could quickly see where all the development activity took place, who was working on it, and when. As a tester, this can give me insight into where to focus, because it tells me where there’s churn in the code.
  • I’ve seen an architect take runtime data, like log files, and use them to build graphs of customer transactions. You could then scroll through all the different images quickly and look for the outliers. Each time you stopped on an image that didn’t look roughly like the others, odds are you found some sort of interesting edge condition or error that tool place. As a tester, this can help you not only recognize when you — or an automated test — might have found an issue; but it can also help you identify and document test scenarios.
  • I’ve seen a test manager chart automated tests that ran off of production data to see what kind of coverage they were getting from their random samplings. Because the tests ran thousands of randomly selected scenarios, it was difficult to understand what was and wasn’t getting covered. Simple pie charts across the various variables involved became a simple dashboard allowing them to better focus their sampling algorithm and manual test coverage.

As you think about what you might have on your project that you might want to look at, take some time to look at examples. If you don’t like looking to the media for examples, check out some of the examples on tools like verifiable.com or many eyes.

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