The Separate Benefits of Real-Time and Historical Data Visualization


It’s safe to say that everyone has some sort of concept of data visualization. We live in a very visual world, replete with pie charts, trend graphs, heat maps, and infographics. The use of graphics to display data for easy consumption and analysis is very common. In fact, it has been happening since ancient times. What is less common is the graphic display of real-time data – data that is continuously updated as new data is generated by connected devices or people. Real-time data visualization – when done correctly – can transform decision-making and lead to a completely new understanding of the people, places, and things with which we interact.

While most of us have encountered real-time data visualization at one time or another (think of the digital signage at the airport keeping you apprised of flight schedules or the sign at your local bank displaying the current temperature), most haven’t considered how this concept differs from the standard type of data visualization we encounter in reports and presentations.

This distinction between real-time data visualization and historical data visualization is key, as they serve two very different purposes and should not be – as they often are – treated in the same way.

Real-time data visualization does not used past data to plan future activities (though historical data can and should be used to plan the creation of the real-time visualization). Real-time visualization is used to provide an instantaneous look at the current conditions of a person, place or thing.

Real-time data is not used to make plans; it is used to make decisions. This distinction requires that we approach real-time data visualization with a different philosophical and practical tact than that used to approach historical visualization.

Excerpted from the whitepaper “Real-Time Data Visualization Essentials”, downloaded at


3 Keys to Effective Real-Time Data Visualization

There are several important factors to consider when creating your real-time data visualization, many of which will depend on your intended application. Today, we consider at a few of the general factors that will play a role in every visualization you create. These three factors are clarity, consistency, and feedback.


Real-Time graphics should emphasize pertinent information and use design principles that promote ease-of-use and accessibility above aesthetics. Things like size, color and brightness can be used to distinguish primary details from secondary and tertiary details. Special graphics can be created to emphasize different information under different conditions (i.e. a special set of graphics to be used when a certain alarm is triggered).


When planning a real-time visualization scenario, it is very important to consider who will be using this visualization, and what is his/her purpose in viewing this data. This will obviously vary from one organization to the next, but when differentiating between primary, secondary, and tertiary information, it is important to not think in terms of what is important about the thing being monitored, but what is important to the person doing the monitoring.



Consistent visualizations are standardized and consistently formatted. Interaction requires a minimum of keystrokes or pointer manipulations. In fact, whenever possible, all relevant information should be visible without the need to navigate to another screen. When navigation is necessary, be certain that elements of the user interface related to navigation are clearly distinguished from elements that relay pertinent information. Additionally, navigation and interaction of any type should be as easy and intuitive as possible.


The ergonomic needs of the user are also extremely important. Poor data visibility has been cited as a primary cause of many industrial accidents where a process was being monitored or controlled through a real-time HMI (Human Machine Interface). In fact, poorly designed HMIs have been blamed for accidents that have led to millions of dollars in damaged equipment and some very unfortunate and unnecessary deaths.


A recent study by OSHA in Europe compiled statistics on HMI-related errors in the workplace. Interestingly, research shows that the majority of problems are caused by human error, but not entirely because of mental and physical fatigue. More often, errors are caused by poor decision-making related to the way that information is processed.



An operator should be fully confident that the choices they make are having the desired effect. Screens should be designed in a way that provides information, putting relevant data in the proper context. Also, important actions that carry significant consequences should have confirmation mechanisms to ensure that they are not activated inadvertently.

 Controls will function consistently in all situations. If something is not working as it should, that fact should be immediately obvious and undeniable. Again, in a well-designed system, design principles are employed to promote clarity and simplicity, and to reduce user fatigue.

Keep it simple and straight-forward. Save the complex visual tools for historical data or real-time reporting. There is certainly a place for all of this, but that place is not where real-time data is being used to make real-time decisions.

Learn more in the free whitepaper “Real-Time Data Visualization Essentials”: