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Data Visualisation: What’s the big deal?


DATE: 05 April, 2016

The concept of using pictures to understand complex information — especially data — has been around for a very long time, centuries in fact. One of the most cited examples of statistical graphics is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia mapped by Charles Minard. The maps showed the size of the army and the path of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. It also included detailed information like temperature and time scales, providing the audience with an in-depth understanding of the event.

However, as with most things, it’s technology that has truly allowed data visualisation to take the stage and get noticed. Computers and programs have made it possible to process huge amounts of data at lightning-fast speeds. Today, data visualisation is rapidly evolving as a blend of science and art and that without a doubt, is certain to change the corporate world over the next few years.

It’s no surprise that with big data there’s potential for BIG opportunity (someone pass me the shot glass), but many corporates are genuinely challenged when it comes to:  

  1. understanding the data they have
  2. finding value in it
  3. getting the wider business to buy in and just GET IT!!!

So how do you tackle this?

When I meet with clients and SME’s to talk data, the conversation naturally heads to stakeholder buy-in and the difficulties in gaining full business engagement, and I’m not surprised. When we consider the impact data has and the ripple effect, this really is no small task and it’s extremely hard to do when the subject you oversee is complex numerical information or huge data sets.

Let’s be honest, planting data tables into a presentation just isn’t going to cut it and generally your senior leadership team struggle to find five minutes to develop their primary skill set let alone a learn a foreign and rather perplexing one.

How do you get people to comprehend this information quickly?

By adding a little art to the science!

Corporates are starting to see large amounts of data in clear, cohesive ways and are confidently finding key takeaways from the information. It’s also much faster for people to analyse information in graphical formats (no one except a data lover enjoys spreadsheets!!), therefore businesses can address problems and answer questions at a much faster pace — some are even working in real time.

Data visualisation is going to change the way analysts work with data. They’re going to be expected to respond to issues more rapidly. And they’ll need to be able to dig for more insights – look at data differently, more imaginatively. Data visualisation will promote that creative data exploration – Simon Samuel, Head of Customer Value Modeling @ Lloyds Banking

How do I show that data visualisation adds VALUE to my organisation?

One word — INSIGHT.

Data can be visualised to show everything! Simple things like knowing what factors influence customers to make a purchase, through to pinpointing and understanding behaviour patterns that can lead to fraud or misuse.

There is so much available to businesses and of course you can continue to use algorithms, machine learning, and the IoT to read your datasets, but then you also have to be prepared to invest in technology and training so your team can bring these findings to life.  

Being able to visualise the data is important and it’s going to be even more important going forward. Executives are demanding more visualisation tools to help them support their insight and analysis, and they also want to accelerate their understanding of the key business drivers. As soon as people can see what you see they are more likely to buy into the solution. Numbers tell a fantastic story but it’s now up to the scientists, analysts, and designers to share it with us all.

As technology advances and people’s behaviours and patterns change, businesses want answers and they want to know what you are going to do before you even think of doing it! In time I think we will get there, but right now we almost have to hold back and start to build some really solid foundations. It’s time to understand the gargantuan task ahead of us and start to get the house in order.  

Every day the type and amount of data available is growing, people and consultancies alike are going against convention by using mobile and social data to predict events and challenge the accuracy of age-old actuarial models and it’s working.  

Technology is not THE sole solution

Sadly, it is not a magic wand that cures all data headaches, so before you rush off to Google the words “Data Visualisation Technology” there are some KEY steps that you and your organisation need to take.

First and foremost you need to have a solid grasp on your data, you also need to understand your goals, needs and audience. Technology is not a magic wand, but it does go a long way in:

  • Understanding the data you’re trying to visualise. Its size and uniqueness
  • Knowing exactly what it is that you are trying to visualise and what kind of information you want to communicate
  • Ensuring you know your audience and understand how they process visual information
  • Using a visual that explains the information in the best and simplest form

One thing is certain — technology can and will continue to disrupt, progress and challenge most things, but it cannot change the way the human brain processes information. We do not cope well with information overload, we need as much help as we can get.

So in answer to the original question — “What’s the big deal?”  Visualisation is key for humans!