Does your data tell a story?


I attended a very thought provoking presentation recently by Jonathan Koomey on turning numbers into knowledge. One aspect of the many things he was proposing really caught my attention – that having a good story is as important as having good data. This opened up a floodgate of ideas in my mind. It reminded me of two examples of very compelling analyses I have seen – both told good stories about their data.

One was by a researcher analyzing the progress of nations across time and making the point that, over the years, some nations have progressed faster in terms of learning. This was attributed to certain factors, and a simple bubble chart that was animated to show movement of the bubbles across the chart with time showed how these nations had moved to towards a better position. All along, the researcher made a compelling case around the data, bringing in the factors that were tied to the movement of data across the chart with time. He achieved this by having a narrative around the presentation of the data.

Another was a New York Times analysis on census data presented on the web. The presentation was unique in that the reader could interact with the graph and see how the trends were for a specific gender, age group or ethnicity. However, the reason why it stood out was that a story was drawn alongside the data and the graphical presentation of it – a story that clicked with the data and helped make sense of it, making us draw certain conclusions that the facts supported.

(When discussing this with my colleague at work, I was pointed to yet another example – this one was sketched in 1869! The link is here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/29/Minard.png. This describes Napoleon’s army’s progress to Moscow and back, tracking the way the army dwindled due to casualties – and relating this to climatic conditions. A visionary analysis indeed and far ahead of its time).

In all of the above cases, what made the data meaningful was the story. This wasn’t a case of putting a clickable analysis interface in front of us and leaving us wondering what the heck we are supposed to do with it. The same is true for most BI solutions. We are so caught up with the technology that is being offered to us – in-memory analytics, columnar databases, cloud – that we are missing out on this extremely critical aspect of better BI – the need for technologies or simply the discipline to create a meaningful analysis around the data that we are presenting such that it leads to effective decisionmaking. This is completely opposed to the traditional notion in BI that you need to present clickable interfaces that let you analyze (the vendor classic) “which of my regions are responsible for my drop in sales in August”. It is not that simple.

How about presenting the data as a storyline such that the decisionmaker does not have to click anything? How about presenting each RELEVANT click as another piece of the analysis in a storyline, and providing enough context around the graphics such that the point of each piece of data presented is clear? Providing a headline and then leading us to some conclusions about the data?

I’m sure there are great analysts in organizations that are already doing this – but how? Is the current spate of BI technologies really helping them or hindering the process? Is this why excel is predominant in organizations- because it helps great analysts tell a story? How effective is it in doing that? I once saw a weak attempt at telling such a story in excel and it involved putting hints along with the data – small comments here and there that help you draw certain conclusions from the mess of numbers thrown at you – a first attempt at least but nonetheless a weak one.

Is “Office Integration” all we could come up with? What about putting serious thought into putting the ability to tell the story into the technology? Giving the great analyst the ability to tell their story right alongside the fancy charts and graphs? And NOT asking the users to click?

My guess is that this would transform BI – and allow decisionmakers to actually benefit from having those expensive DWBI solutions around.

I have decided to dedicate my free time to pursuing research on how the information is best presented to make decisionmaking easier – and how technology can aid it as opposed to hindering it with sheer complexity. If you are reading this and are aware of any such research being conducted now or having been in the past, please contact me at shubhoghosal@yahoo.com.

And the next time you present data – don’t forget to tell a story  about it.

8 Comments

  1. You’re absolutely right Shubo, but why has it taken so long for so many BI practitioners to continue to ‘not get it’? I think it may have something to do with the focus on technology versus what people really want – the right figures in the right context – not just data in a report which assumes that everyone who looks at it knows exactly what it is telling them.

    I’ve always said that BI does not answer Business Questions, and so the ‘I’ in BI is not in the tool or the data – it should be in the person who is using it… there’s lots of analogies for this – around a fool with a tool will always be a fool etc…. however, BI should provide all fools, with fool-proof information – i.e. very clear and relevant context and guided navigation etc.

  2. Phil,
    Totally agree – and my thought is to figure out what technology can do better towards providing the context. I have some ideas in my head towards this – they are around presenting a storyline and a context to the data and the graphics. I am also planning a research initiative towards understanding how information is best presented such that decisions can be made from it. This will involve interviews with decisionmakers and collaboration with people in solving this problem around the globe. If you would like to join this effort, that would be much appreciated.
    Regards,
    Shubho

  3. Shubho…

    After years and years in BI, I have never seen or read an article that was so concise. Many Congratulations!!

    …The inablity of Systems to “tell a story” is what makes BI systems so difficult to justify…and often times, the system gets pushed off to being just “reporting tools”!!

  4. damn, so many good ideas are going through my head after reading this. BRILLIANT

    as “continuous improvement manager” for a hugh Building material group, I spent my last two years on finding the right improvement methodology to support our “fragmented” business (as CRH is an acquisition machine).
    FYI, I’m not an BI addict, IT wizard,….and therefore only focusing on the business side, BUT with a sustainable solution (I even can’t program ;)….or don’t want to program )

    I found only one Business analytics/decision support tool that supports my story on why people should change, and believe me, you will only succeed if you have a good story, sence of urgency, ambition and methodology.
    Our company bought this software and I’m now rolling this out for 30 medium sized companies (1,4 billion Euro), all with different ERP systems, versions, cultures, maturity, business models……and everywhere I’m selling my story, I have immediate buy in. (I have to sell my projects internally 😉 )

    therefore I’m willing to join this effort, as I’m continuously thinking about this storyboard. The provider of this software is continuously developing the tool for better decision making….if we can generate good ideas, I can develop this in our system and give feedback to you!!

    1. Filip,

      Thanks for your comments. Sounds like you found a software/vendor that supports story telling. Which one is it?

      Regards,
      Shubho

  5. Equazion (www.equazion.be), 2 years ago acquired by Mahindra Satyam.

    interesting is that they are basically supply chain/business consultants, that created a Business analytics software, not the other way around…..
    that’s the key of the success

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