What is Data Density? - Definition & Small Multiples

Instructor: David Gloag

David has over 40 years of industry experience in software development and information technology and a bachelor of computer science

We use information for everything, from simple calculations to complex visualizations. In this lesson, we'll take a look at data density, what it is, and how it relates to small multiples.

A World Without Information

Imagine for a moment a world without information: no contact information for your friends, no score or summary information from last night's sporting event, and no weather forecast predicting what's in store for the day. Can you see it? Most people couldn't. We're dependent on information and can't imagine a world without it; however, it's more than that. Not only do we want and need information, but this information must also be accurate. There are a number of things to consider when thinking about accuracy. One of the most interesting is data density.

What Is Data Density?

Data density can be thought of in two ways. First, it is a measure of how much information can be stored in a specific amount of storage space. Think of this like the population density in a big city versus the population of those living outside city limits in the country. The number of people per square kilometer or mile is significantly higher in the city than in the country. Data density can be thought of in the same fashion.

Second, data density can be thought of in terms of sampling. Say we have a large number of people, and we want to get an idea of how many individuals have brown eyes. Without actually looking at every single person, we could look at every tenth one or every hundredth. The data density would be how many were examined versus how many there are. This is the point of view we'll focus on for the rest of this lesson.

Why Is Data Density Important?

Data density is important in areas like data visualization. This area focuses on creating visual representations that provide information that can be quickly and easily digested. It is concerned about data density because it wants to represent the information as accurately as possible. This necessarily precludes low data densities. In the sampling example above, a data visualization of every tenth or every one hundredth person, will be nowhere near as accurate as using every single person. For data visualization, data density is directly related to the accuracy of the visuals produced. The same is true for other areas.

What Are Small Multiples?

Small multiples is a technique that breaks multidimensional data visualization down into smaller, more manageable pieces. ''Multidimensional'' refers to visualizations that include more than one variable. For small multiples, you would have 3 or more. For the simplest case of 3 dimensions, we could break the representation down into a series of 2-dimensional pieces where one dimension remains constant throughout the series (in name and scale), and the third changes.

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