#Abbotsthon17: visualising patterns – Alan, boxing and Sankey


During last Thursday’s #Abbotsthon17 conversations, we were discussing pattern recognition. Alan Swanton suggested sharing some of his boxing data to exemplify some of the ideas we were exploring.

I suggested we defer the sharing given the flow of conversation that was occurring. With Alan’s permission, I am sharing two of his slides here that I think make a very important contribution to the wider discussion of how we share data stories with audiences.

The first is a matrix of data:

The second is why I suggested we did not share at the time Alan proposed it.

I think this second visualisation, a Sankey diagram, could have taken us on a fascinating journey that might otherwise have been constrained towards the end of a long day of concentration. It is one I am keen to explore now.

Transforming Data

Alan has been working with the Irish boxing program for some time. He has been very assiduous in his collection of performance data and has been keen to share these data in ways that provide coaches with actionable insights.

I think his Sankey diagram transforms the descriptive data shared in his matrix. I am intrigued by Alan’s choice of this visualisation.

A Sankey diagram is a flow diagram in which the width of the arrows used is shown proportionally to the flow quantity. Perhaps because it is such a powerful way to visualise energy, it is a ‘natural’ way to present energy flows in a combat sport.

I wonder what you think as you compare the two images (repeated again here):

I do not have access to Alan’s original diagram. My attention in visualisation 2 (Sankey) is triggered by the Jab route in successful attack phases. I imagine this has led to very powerful conversations with coaches and athletes.

This embodies for me the role of the analyst in an informatics age: data rich actionable insights shared in an elegant way.

Henri Poincaré wrote of this kind of elegance:

What is it that gives us the feeling of elegance in a solution or a demonstration? It is the harmony of the different parts, their symmetry, and their happy adjustment; it is, in a word, all that introduces order, all that gives them unity, that enables us to obtain a clear comprehension of the whole as well as of the parts. But that is also precisely what causes it to give a large return; and in fact the more we see this whole clearly and at a single glance, the better we shall perceive the analogies with other neighboring objects, and consequently the better chance we shall have of guessing the possible generalizations. Elegance may result from the feeling of surprise caused by the unlooked-for occurrence together of objects not habitually associated. In this, again, it is fruitful, since it thus discloses relations till then unrecognized. It is also fruitful even when it only results from the contrast between the simplicity of the means and the complexity of the problem presented, for it then causes us to reflect on the reason for this contrast, and generally shows us that this reason is not chance, but is to be found in some unsuspected law. Briefly stated, the sentiment of mathematical elegance is nothing but the satisfaction due to some conformity between the solution we wish to discover and the necessities of our mind, and it is on account of this very conformity that the solution can be an instrument for us.

I do hope Alan has forgiven me for not pursuing his data analysis on Thursday. I am delighted that he has now shared his analysis with all thirty attendees at the hackathon.

I do see this as the start of a whole new conversation … that will take us from Irish boxing back to Charles Minard‘s Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812.

Charles Minard's Map

It is a conversation about narratives and how we transform their content into powerful messages.

Photo Credits

Olympic Women’s Boxing (Ian Glover, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Minard’s classic diagram of Napoleon‘s invasion of Russia, using the feature now named after Sankey. (No known copyright restrictions.)