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The complexity trade-off

November 16, 2009

Well, I didn’t make it to as many documentaries as I had hoped under CPH:DOX. On Sunday however, we went and saw The End of the Line, a film about the state of the world’s fisheries. I can’t say that I was overwhelmed. It was made-for-tv material, with heavy emotional appeal and beautiful National Geographic-like filming and editing. Not to say that those types of films don’t have value, but I had been hoping for more locally relevant information (that’d be the North Sea fisheries) and a more nuanced, scientific storytelling.

Instead the film made sweeping assumptions about its audience and in the end resorted to the tactic of “think of the children!”.   Which is a reasonable thing to think about, but man oh man, I am tired of hearing that tired old line about every political issue out there.

But the film did give me the spark I needed to go online and find out which fish I should eat and which I shouldn’t. From what I found, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has pretty good coverage of global guidelines.

In my online meanderings looking for more detailed information of North Sea fisheries, I came upon a number of graphs. Here’s one that is quite easy on the eyes, pretty and concise:

Where are all the fish?

Five of the most popular fish and their yearly catch. From GOOD magazine.

Visually I really like this infographic. It is loud and clear. The problem with this though, is that it really is too loud and clear. It simplifies the issue at hand and there are a lot of relationships in the data they must have collected to make this graph that just aren’t showing through. If you read the comments on the original website, you’ll see that there is disagreement among the viewers as to the graph’s scientific value (of course there are those who will deny any and all science, but that’s another story).  I feel that when you simplify a very complex issue, like over-fishing, with a graph, even those who ‘get it’ won’t actually ‘get it‘, because the information just isn’t there.

But people don’t have time to read scientific papers and to look at heaps of data and a multitude of graphs (people other than scientists and library students, that is). So I don’t really have any sort of solution to offer right off the bat.

I will however, provide another graph. This one shows the food web of the cod, the main character in the tragedy of the collapse of the Northwest Atlantic cod fishery:

Cod Food Web

Complex food web of the cod. By David Lavigne, found via visualcomplexity.

Certainly gives us an idea of the complex relationships between species, and how the loss of one species of fish is felt throughout the ecosystem. But perhaps a little too complex and thus too tiring to look at? In a way the two graphs are night and day. It seems like this trade-off between the complex/information-rich and the simplicity/information-poor must be an eternal bone for those working in information visualization.

Anyhow, while this is not directly related to what I’m doing in school these days, as an information specialist-in-training, it is always good to pause and think about the way information is presented to us, and whether or not it actually helps us understand anything any better.

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