Tag Archives: visualization of data

Inspiration from Stephen Few

Greetings from San Francisco. I am back here to attend Osisoft’s vCampus developer conference. The conference kicked off with a true highlight: Stephen Few delivered one of the keynote presentations. Hopefully, all of you know Stephen and the awesome work he has done over the past years. Today’s presentation was content-rich and also very entertaining. There were a lot of smiling faces in the audience. I will write up a short summary of his messages over the weekend and share it on this blog.

Is this the information age?

Stephen Few started his presentation with a strong statement: We do not live in the information age…..yet. Instead, many of us are drowning in data and we struggle with making sense of the data. Part of the issue is that we are lacking ‘data-sensemaking’ skills. To highlight this point, Stephen Few showed a video. I had never seen it before. It’s funny but there is a strong message behind it: we do not understand how to deliver information properly.

Those concentric circles

Does your organization have a ‘concentric circle’ problem? I certainly know a lot of them. It’s time to change that. Take some time to evaluate whether your reports and dashboards are able to deliver real information.

Concentric circles

“Concentric circles” in the corporate world

 

Check back here in the next few days for a summary of Stephen Few’s presentation.

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How to confuse and distract your audience with poor visualizations

Excuse me?

We often talk about how to best visualize data so that the audience can quickly discover the most important information in often complex data sets. But we cannot forget that it is also possible to achieve exactly the opposite effect: You can also leverage visualizations to distract and confuse people. As a matter of fact, it is possible to create visuals that completely hide important messages. Why would you do that? I guess if you want to hide bad news….right?

A bad example

The other day I received the 2011 spending report of the town that I live in. The text was quite dense and it included a ton of public sector terms that I did not understand. The core of the report, however, was centered around a graphic that outlines the detailed spending. Without further due, here it is.

Poor visualization

What’s wrong with this chart? Boy….pretty much everything: Extreme 3D, poor font choice (I can’t read it…), technical language and the colors… The sum of the parts is also not correct (as compared to the narrative). Percentages are not correct either (poor rounding practices). To be honest with you – when I saw this report I immediately got the impression that our town hall is trying to hide something. After some analysis I am still confused and not quite sure what to think about this.

To be fair, I believe that our mayor and his team are highly qualified. His approval ratings are extremely high for good reason. But this sort of communication does leave a bad taste in my mouth. It just makes you wonder….

A better approach

3D pie charts are never a good choice. The data above is quite simple and one could either leverage a standard sorted bar graph, a stacked bar chart or a waterfall graph. Really depends on your own personal preference. Here is an example:

Stacked Bar Chart

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Freedom to think?

Change that viewpoint

Last summer I participated in a Bavarian wedding.

As a photographer I was really excited to see three traditional alphorn players. The early results looked good on the camera monitor (left photo). At that point I was tempted to pack up and celebrate with my friends. But I resisted and began to experiment with different viewpoints. The final shot ended up as my personal favorite (photograph on the right). Same scene, different perspective. Changing viewpoints paid off.

Alphorn

Business Analytics and Viewpoints

Changing our viewpoint is especially critical for Business Analytics. Continue reading

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Visualize This! A book review

Visualize this!

Visualization of data is one of the hottest topics these days. No matter where I go, people are taking a huge interest in it. Infographics are floating the Internet, for example. Companies are looking to refine their dashboards with better visuals. This was also apparent at the Gartner BI Summit earlier this week.

Despite the tremendous attention, there are only a few good books about this topic in the market. One of them is Nathan Yau’s title Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics. This week, I was able to finally read it all the way through. Did I enjoy reading it? Yes and no.

visualize this

Great concepts

Yau does a fine job with engaging the reader in the first part of the book. He explains a number of important fundamentals of visualization. This includes a process that he suggests people should follow:

  1. Get your data
  2. Ask a question (what do you want to know about it?)
  3. Choose your visualization tools
  4. Explore the data (look for trends, patterns, differences, etc.)
  5. Tell the story and design the visual

There is a lot of relevant information for business analytics professionals in this section. I particularly like that Yau urges his readers to clearly figure out what story they want to tell by visualizing data. This is often forgotten in the design of a dashboard (e.g. do I use a line-chart to show the trend, or do I use a bar chart to show the variances?)

“Approach visualization as if you were telling a story. What kind of story are you trying to tell? Is it a report, or is it a novel? Do you want to convince people that action is necessary?” Nathan Yau

The other chapters

The remaining chapters of the book contain valuable content as well. The author covers topics such as handling data and picking tools for building charts. Several chapters are dedicated towards describing how to best visualize certain problems (e.g. patterns, proportions, spatial relationships, etc.). Each section provides plenty of examples and some good ideas. I enjoyed working through this. But I do have to say that the content isn’t nearly as deep as let’s say Stephen Few’s material.

A good book for BI professionals?

So far so good. There is just one thing that you should know: Many chapters are also full of technical instructions that teach you how to build graphs and charts in the open source package R along with Adobe Illustrator. There is a lot of code in the book. Technical folks might enjoy this. But it is not my cup of tea and most BI professionals will hopefully build their charts using the corporate BI platform. To be honest, I went ahead and skipped those pages.

Visualize this!

Nathan Yau’s book Visualize this! is definitely a good book. I learned a few things here and there and took ample notes. It is also entertaining.  However, one has to understand that this is not necessarily a book dedicated towards BI professionals. Rather, this is a book for people who are looking to build infographics and other standalone visualizations. Nevertheless, you can tell that Nathan Yau is passionate about it and he inspired me to hone my skills. If you are looking for a deeper and more business oriented read, I would rather recommend the books by Stephen Few and Edward Tufte.

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The power of Data visualization

We all know that visual information display is more effective. But yet, we still create, run & analyze hundreds of thousands of flat reports. A survey from 2007 (CFO Executive Board) found that the average management report is 30-40 pages long and that it contains 12000 to 15000 data points. But only 5% of those are deemed to be important. The most obvious question that comes to mind is: How much time is wasted to go through this amount of data and turn this into real insights? Would it help to start using more powerful visuals to display the hidden meaning behind all those data?

Watch this inspiring and entertaining speech by author, journalist & visualization pioneer David McCandless. I will blog about some of his ideas and how they relate to business at a later point.

 

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