How Your Project Is Like The Passamoquoddy Bay

Early on in his (quite good, and recommended) “Information Visualization: Perception for Design,” author Colin Ware aptly demonstrates the importance of visuals, in terms of cognition and understanding.

“Visualizations,” Ware writes, “have a small but crucial and expanding role in cognitive systems. Visual displays provide the highest bandwidth channel from the computer to the human. We acquire more information through vision than all of the other senses combined. The 20 billion or so neurons of the brain devoted to analyzing visual information provide a pattern-finding mechanism that is a fundamental component in much of our cognitive activity.”

That’s an academic way of stating a fact that many project managers have leveraged for years: Getting folks to understand complex concepts is hard, and pictures make it easier.


If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you have a solid grasp of Microsoft Project, or a similar project/portfolio management tool. And if you have a solid grasp of one or more of those tools, you remember the first time you used it. It looked a bit like Excel, but the cells acted differently. You probably created a few accidental dependencies and links. You almost certainly had some short tasks extending far too long, and long-term tasks lasting a single day. There’s a learning curve to applications like Project, and being able to analyze what you’re seeing takes time.

Now think about the people who work on the projects you manage. They’re probably quite smart. They know their fields as well as you know yours. They do what they do, and they (usually) do it well. And almost none of them “do” Project, Primavera, Planisware or Planview.

Still, you need to get information across to them, and you need to do it without wasting their time, sending mixed messages or creating confusion. That’s where visuals (OnePager Gantt charts, for the purposes of a shameless plug) come in. Your data may live in your project management tool of choice, but it can’t very well be shown that way. By bringing information into a universal format that your team can easily understand, you instantly increase the speed and ease with which you can transfer information – removing one of the great hurdles to effective scheduling and project management.

Ware, the Director of the Data Visualization Research Lab, part of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire, makes this exact point in “Information Visualization.” Drawing from his oceanic expertise, he gives the example of multibeam echo sounder scanning in Passamoquoddy Bay, “between Maine … and New Brunswick, Canada, where the tides are the highest in the world.” The million measurements of the undersea terrain would have traditionally “been presented in the form of a nautical chart with contours and spot sounding” – something easily read and understood by coastal experts, and few others.

But when converted to a height field and displayed as a computer rendering, you get this:


You can easily notice quite a few things. Of particular note are the hole-shaped “pockmarks,” and the way they form lines. This phenomenon was not well understood before this particular visualization was produced. Thanks to this easier way to parse the million-piece data set, it became apparent that the pockmarks tend to align with the direction of geological faults, suggesting they may be caused by the release of gas.

That’s the power of data visualization. Massive amounts of information – even information contained in relatively arcane systems – can be transferred instantly. Insights can be gleaned. Patterns can be recognized. And your team can keep doing what they do, while you keep doing what you do.

Ready to put the power of visual plan communications to work for you? Try OnePager Free for 15 Days!

This entry was posted in Data Visualization, Infographic, Project Visualization by Jim. Bookmark the permalink.

About Jim

Jim earned his PhD in applied physics at Harvard University in 1977 and has filled both R&D and executive roles at software-development companies since 1981. His employment history includes Texas Instruments, IBM, Landmark Graphics, and GuideWorks/Comcast. His roles have included Senior Member of Technical Staff at TI, Program Manager at IBM, Vice President of R&D at Landmark, Vice President of Marketing at Landmark, and Senior Vice President of Engineering and Development at GuideWorks/Comcast. He co-founded OnePager (originally Chronicle Graphics) in 2005 because he needed the tool himself and hasn't missed the corporate ladder ever since!

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