We’re Innumerate, Which Is Why We Love Visualizations


This weekend I reviewed my notes from a few weeks of late summer meetings, and found this gem from a  conversation with Mike Driscoll, the CEO and co-founder of data analytics firm MetaMarkets. MetaMarkets helps adtech firms make sense of the reams of data they collect each day (hour, minute, second…). Most of this data is meaningless without some kind of pattern recognition and interpretation, Driscoll told me. He then used a great metaphor, one that resonated given my post earlier last week that Writing is Code, Reading Is Visualization.

When we read, Driscoll noted, we both ingest the words and simultaneously “see” a story. Stories, of course, are how we understand the world. Reading pre-supposes that a story is being told – we don’t read texts full of random words and letters, literate texts are formed so as to impart knowledge. Reading presupposes literacy. We read the text and, assuming the writer is reasonably skilled, we “see” what the author intended – a narrative story is delivered and received.

Numbers, however, are different. Very  few of us are highly numerate – we can’t “read” numbers and see stories from them in our heads. In short, most of us are innumerate – we can’t see a story by looking at numbers. Computers are excellent at reading numbers, of course, but they are terrible at telling stories. This is why people who can do both at the same time – like the cast of The Matrix,  the “Rain Man,” or advanced mathematicians of any stripe – seem so cool and alien to us.

Alas, for the rest of us, we don’t “see” much of anything when we look at a text made up of hundreds or thousands of numbers. Numbers on a page are mute. But once those numbers are run through a visualization filter, they transform into stories – visual narratives that, with a bit of practice, become highly informing. And this is why “data scientist” and “data visualization” are two of the most promising careers these days. We’re awash in data, but we lack the code to make meaning from it.

As you can tell from the graphic below, there’s an extraordinary amount of information in the programmatic adtech ecosystem – orders of magnitude more than in our current financial system.  Driscoll’s firm turns that raw information into meaningful narratives for his clients. I have a feeling that’s a very good business to be in going forward.


MetaMarkets Adtech Data vs. Financial Markets
Programmatic marketing is “the most complex marketplace the world has ever created, in terms of both transactional scale and richness,” says Mike Driscoll, CEO MetaMarkets.

4 thoughts on “We’re Innumerate, Which Is Why We Love Visualizations”

  1. That graphic comparing the number of daily transactions on the NYSE to the number of daily programattic ad transactions is insane! Isn’t this just a technical arms race, and an economic race to the bottom?!

  2. Allow me to present my framework for viewing such things, heavily borrowing from the work of others.

    Language can be used to encode information into data, transmit that data elsewhere, where it can be decoded and converted back from data to information.

    Our brains are just as good as computers at both the encoding (information to data) and decoding (data to information) or “reading” of numbers. Our senses decode data into information, whereas our voice and fingers encode information in our brains into data.

    However, we humans are limited to the basic senses built into our body, so we can not directly perceive the 1’s and 0’s of modern electronic data. We rely on computers to convert those 1’s and 0’s into information we can understand using visual, written, and spoken languages that we share with the computer, both artificial (e.g. Java and PHP) and natural, such as English.

    The form of information presentation is critical in order to convert that information into the most useful knowledge.

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