Visualizing or Simulating, how to tell the difference?

Do you know about a flight that was destined to crash but didn’t? It even became the first-ever flight to land on the River Hudson. On January 15th, 2009, a US Airline flight 1549 flying from New York was made to land on the River Hudson only 4 minutes after it had flown. In the aftermath of the event, an investigation was held to check whether the action taken to reroute the flight on the Hudson was necessary. 17 reruns of the flight simulation verified that the airline was destined for doom through all routes it could take, had it not been for the vigilant and far-sighted efforts of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger. Sully became a US national hero then onward.

Airlines use flight simulators to mimic the environment of the cockpit. Just like investigators of the US Airline flight 1549 did. Simulations have become a crucial part of many safety-critical applications like flight investigations. Nowadays, companies are using simulations and visualizations to understand real-world scenarios and phenomena to improve decision-making and represent the data. But wait? Aren’t these two the same thing? What is the difference between a simulation and a visualization?

Simulations replicate real-world scenarios to allow users to experiment with situations that would otherwise develop naturally. Before we had simulations, researchers would wait for the natural phenomenon of tornadoes to occur before they could record their composition, causes, and aftermath effects. The creation of a virtual environment enables a simulation to be used for countless applications in the fields of geography, meteorology, aeronautics, aerospace, military, economics, and many more. Have you ever come across a weather simulation on a television news broadcast? Simulations have been especially crucial in safety-critical applications such as weather storms. In a research conducted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in 1997 a severe storm that hit the US states of Oklahoma and Texas in the year 1964 was modeled using a simulation. This research brought valuable insights into the causes and impact of the storms and allowed for government institutions to plan storm-proof infrastructure for cities.

On the other hand, visualization is a graphical representation of data that describes trends in that data. It helps summarize, analyze and discover insights from a specific data set which can be very crucial in assessing performance, making decisions, and setting goals. Data being generated has crossed 69 zettabytes (1000^7) as of the year 2020 and managing that much data is next to impossible without the support of technology that removes unnecessary details to present only the useful facts and information that can help make inferences and decisions in a better and more informed way. Modern businesses are using an advanced version of these data summaries called a “dashboard”. The primary purpose of the field of Business Intelligence is to gather data from businesses and show it back to them in the form of nicely represented graphs, pie charts, histograms, data cards, and slicers. You’ve probably already seen a visualization. Have you driven a car? The speedometer and the fuel meter of the car are visualizations! Of course, these visualizations are a more analog version of data representation. In the digital paradigm, advanced cars may show the same metrics in the form of numbers and graphs. Retail, telecom, stocks, healthcare, and you name it, every industry is on the lookout for numbers that give them value through analytical dashboards and creative visualizations.

So, are they the same?
What differentiates a simulation from a visualization is that a simulation generates data whereas a visualization represents data. A simulation is an artificial system that recreates a phenomenon, situation, or condition that generates data for analysis. Any natural, financial, geographic, scientific, social phenomenon can be mimicked using creative simulation software. Whereas visualizations simply squeeze millions of rows of data into visually appealing graphs and illustrations that make it easier for a reader to note what trends the data is trying to communicate.

Okay, so maybe they are connected?
It is to note that the link between the two is quite interesting and often people use the terms interchangeably. Where a simulation may not be the same as visualization, the two are certainly linked through an important aspect: data. While visualizations summarize and represent data for better understanding, simulations produce data by recreating real-world situations. Visualizations might also represent data sourced from systems other than a simulation. Simulations generate complicated conditions in the virtual space that in turn produce a large amount of data that needs to be interpreted.

Conclusively, visualization and simulation are independent inventions of modern technology but very powerful tools that when combined, add value to the field of research and analysis such that they allow analysts in the present to reinforce understanding of the real-world scenarios of the past and predict forthcoming scenarios of the future.