Like a lot of boutique consultancies, much of our time is spent analyzing and synthesizing pre-existing data and condensing it into useful information. At that point, we’re not done. At least as much time goes into shaping information into something doesn’t just explain, but convinces and persuades. This allows us to use a relatively small set of tools that work with a wide variety of data sources. One of those tools is Tableau and we find it makes relatively short work of the data visualization piece of the puzzle. Its not the only data visualization tool that we’re prepared to use but its served us well and our clients. A picture may not be worth a thousand words, and correlation still isn’t causation, but its still too important to be left to more generic tools and vendors. I was still surprised, however, by the passion of the denunciation Stephen Few made of the existing large Business Intelligence vendors and the press that evaluates them when I read this at his Visual Intelligence blog yesterday:
All along, these organizations have needed what good data visualization vendors like Tableau and their kin have been providing—effective ways to explore and analyze data—because the big BI vendors haven’t provided it and still don’t, which brings us to Evelson’s most naïve and potentially harmful statement: “These days all of the other vendors have perfectly fine data visualization capabilities.” After I read this, my wife mistook my convulsions as a seizure. Evelson’s statement couldn’t be more wrong. To date, none of the big BI software companies support data visualization in a manner that is “perfectly fine” or even reasonably adequate. They allow you to view data in graphs, but do so in embarrassingly inadequate ways. This inadequacy is especially apparent when we narrow our focus to exploratory data analysis, which requires meaningful and rapid interaction with data. Neither PowerPivot from Microsoft, Business Objects Explorer, nor any of the other attempts that I’ve seen by big BI vendors to enable exploratory data analysis have advanced past kindergarten. To draw on my Biblical roots for a moment, good visual analysis products such as Tableau, Tibco Spotfire, and SAS JMP lead people who have previously stumbled around in the dark using clunky BI products to exclaim “I was blind but now I see.”
I am curious if there are people out there who’ve had the opposite experience to what Stephen Few has mentioned: have they been unimpressed with the capabilities of the smaller vendors? I’ve yet to run into those people, but I’d be very interested in hearing from any disgruntled customers who think data visualization is over hyped. That certainly isn’t our experience.
Most of us who spend a lot of professional time analyzing projections and forecasts are used to poking holes to bring them down to earth. I hope that’s the case here and I’m just missing something obvious. I’ve been following the oil boom in North Dakota since 2008 and despite the hyperbolic headlines lately, had assumed that the state of North Dakota would slowly overtake each of the top oil-producing states over the next decade if its oil production kept rising and those same states didn’t drill more new wells. But, according to Mark J. Perry, a professor of economics and finance in the School of Management at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan and visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute that’s going to happen a lot sooner than any predictions I’ve read lately:
At North Dakota’s blazing current pace of monthly increases in oil production, the state will be producing more than 560,000 barrels of oil per day by January 2012 and will then pass #3 California (540,000 barrels per day) and #2 Alaska (550,000 barrels per day) to become America’s second-largest oil producer. North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms is even more optimistic and predicts that the Peace Garden State could actually be producing as much as 800,000 barrels per day by the end of this year!
I’m used to oil producers being on the high side of optimistic about production forecasts, but this quote is from a state employee. I keep waiting for the black cloud in the silver lining and, so far, it doesn’t seem to be happening. Hat tip to the Bakken Blog for the consistent tips.
In a poignant reflection on what it was like to know the man outside of the workplace, Peter Robinson writes in Steve Job’s Chopsticks about Steve’s obsessive drive to design. It was never the technology per se; the technology was merely a means to a larger end. And Steve Jobs saw the end more clearly than his competitors. Unlike Microsoft and even Google, designers are king at Apple, as this article at Cult of Mac points out (a big, big hat tip to the invaluable Farnham Street blog for that article link. And if you’re not reading it, why not?)
Microsoft hires some of the smartest people in the world. They are known for their incredibly challenging test they put people through to get hired. It’s not an issue of people being smart and talented. It’s that design at Apple is at the highest level of the organization, led by Steve personally. Design at other companies is not there. It is buried down in the bureaucracy somewhere… In bureaucracies many people have the authority to say no, not the authority to say yes. So you end up with products with compromises. This goes back to Steve’s philosophy that the most important decisions are the things you decide NOT to do, not what you decide to do. It’s the minimalist thinking again.
When I changed the Archytas Group tagline to Insight by Design I wasn’t thinking specifically of Apple’s design influence on North America’s business aesthetic, but there’s no question Apple played a huge role in shaping it, no matter whether you use their products or not. Japanese chopsticks, high end Italian supercars, custom jewelry, origami paper, it didn’t matter. Nothing seemed to escape Jobs’s nose for design and it rippled all the way to fonts, logos, and retail stores. Like Walt Disney before him, Jobs knew, intuitively it seems, before his many reinventions of himself, that what his customers wanted was an aesthetic experience they couldn’t get anywhere else. Dostoevsky is famous for the quote “Beauty will save the world”. True or not, there’s no question it saved Apple.
I’ll bore my clients, friends and colleagues later with the neuroscience, but today I’m going to start looking at that Pilot-Namiki Vanishing Point fountain pen, think about getting the nib custom ground, and dust off a book on 16th century Italic writing instead of trying to source a new Intuos4 wireless pen tablet. Not because its more efficient, and not because its wireless, but because it looks better on a hardwood floor.
(Photo linked to Cult of Mac)
New presenters are often confused about how to manage the emotional state of their audience. I suspect this confusion is the ultimate underlying cause for the well known”Death by Bulletpoint” whereby well meaning presenters edge their audience (or victims if you’ve sat through enough of them) toward states of utter boredom by drowning them in a sea of statistics, three letter acronyms (TLA’s for the well experienced) and raw factual information. Particularly if their background is the quantitative sciences, they often underestimate the role of dramatic tension and resolution in the art of presentation for keeping an audience interested and engaged.