Data Visualization: Making Big Data Dance

May 21, 2013
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Fifteen years ago, the presentation of data typically fell under the purview of analysts and IT professionals. Quarterly or annual meetings entailed rolling data up into now quaint diagrams, graphs, and charts.

My, how times have changed. Today, data is everywhere. We have entered the era of Big Data and, as I write in Too Big to Ignore, many things are changing.

Fifteen years ago, the presentation of data typically fell under the purview of analysts and IT professionals. Quarterly or annual meetings entailed rolling data up into now quaint diagrams, graphs, and charts.

My, how times have changed. Today, data is everywhere. We have entered the era of Big Data and, as I write in Too Big to Ignore, many things are changing.

Big Data: Enterprise Shifts

In the workplace, let’s focus on two major shifts. First, today it’s becoming incumbent upon just about every member of a team, group, department, and organization to effectively present data in a compelling manner. Hidden in the petabytes of structured and unstructured data are key consumer, employee, and organizational insights that, if unleashed, would invariably move the needle.

Second, data no longer needs be presented on an occasional or periodic basis. Many employees are routinely looking at data of all types, a trend that will only intensify in the coming years.

data visualization

The proliferation of effective data visualization tools like Ease.ly and Tableau provides tremendous opportunity. (The latter just went public with the übercool stock symbol $DATA.) Sadly, though, not enough employees—and, by extension, organizations—maximize the massive opportunity presented by data visualization. Of course, notable exceptions exist, but far too many professionals ignore DV tools. The result: they fail to present data in visually compelling ways. Far too many of us rely upon old standbys: bar charts, simple graphs, and the ubiquitous Excel spreadsheet. One of the biggest challenges to date with Big Data: Getting more people actually use the data–and the tools that make that data dance.

This begs the question: Why the lack of adoption? I’d posit that two factors are at play here:

  • Lack of knowledge that such tools exist among end users.
  • Many end users who know of these tools are unwilling to use them.

Simon Says: Make the Data Dance

Big Data in and of itself guarantees nothing. Presenting findings to senior management should involve more than pouring over thousands of records. Yes, the ability to drill down is essential. But starting with a compelling visual represents a strong start in gaining their attention.

Big Data is impossible to leverage with traditional tools (read: relational databases, SQL statements, Excel spreadsheets, and the like.)  Fortunately, increasingly powerful tools allow us to interpret and act upon previously unimaginable amounts of data. But we have to decide to use them.

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