by Rob on 11/10/12 at 7:50 am
For those of us who love and understand big data, there’s never been a better time to be in the business. Thanks both to a host of new measurement technologies and the integration of these tools into popular culture, we’ve knocked holes in the dams that once stood between us and a formerly inaccessible frontier of data. The result: a flood of information, filled with boundless potential for providing the kind of insight that can radically change the way we live our lives, run our businesses, and interact with our planet.
But raw data, of course, isn’t readily translatable to most human minds, especially to the many big decision makers who don’t specialize in information sciences. And if data doesn’t make sense to the people who call the shots or to the masses for whom a small change of behavior could have significant outcomes for humanity as a whole, it doesn’t do much good. That’s why it’s so important to develop the right tools for compressing knowledge to highlight the most important take-aways, discovering the links between data sets to get a better sense of causal relationships, and communicating analysis in the kind of visual form that both experts and lay people alike can understand and engage with intuitively.
Breaking it into Digestible Pieces
Tell any big data vet, researcher or statistician that data is itself a story and you’ll likely get a roll of the eyes and a “tell me something I don’t know.” But even those of us who love the numbers aren’t made of numbers. Without any kind of business analytics software to help us break down a mass of data into manageable chunks, it’s hard to know even where to start our analysis. What’s more, when that data moves to the next link on the corporate chain, users won’t know what to make of a mass of numbers.
Breaking data down into subsets and visualizing those subsets in graphs, charts and infographics helps compress the knowledge into digestible pieces, allowing viewers to allocate their full attention and analytical tools to the presented information, which can then be pieced together in different ways in other visualizations to highlight different aspects of the analysis. Ironically, by distilling the larger picture into more limited subsets, we’re better able to grasp the larger picture. It shouldn’t be surprising, as this is how it goes for any type of learning. We can’t lay the first floor until the foundation is set, and we can’t move into the house until the whole thing has been built, layer by layer.
What, exactly, does it mean to get lost in a sea of data? Losing our bearings, for one, something that’s far too easy to do when unprocessed data is dumped into a spreadsheet and expected to perform. Dashboard reporting is essential to alleviating this problem. Not only do dashboards allow users to personalize incoming data to suit their own processing styles and current focus, but they also provide a range of analysis and visualization tools that empower the user to easily find trends in the data and discern the relationship between various topically disparate factors.
Creating this kind of landscape – that is, parsing data in such a way that it makes intuitive sense to the viewer – is what will change data into knowledge into insight into action.
Right/Left Brain Understanding
While the depiction of brain lateralization has been both oversimplified and over-hyped in the popular press, discussing cognition in terms of the right and left mind can provide an illuminating framework. In fact, more and more evidence points to the importance of full-brain thinking – when both hemispheres apply their unique skills in tandem to process a difficult task. When data is effectively visualized, it speaks directly to the intuitive right brain to help us just get what the data is saying. Early on in analysis, this nurtures hunches that the left brain can then submit to cross-examination, further crunching the numbers and pinpointing the truth.
The result of this process can then be returned to the right brain to create an even more compelling story or visualization that will speak intuitively to the minds of a boss or a friend, who can then process the data in a similar way. Translating data between the two hemispheres of the brain doesn’t just give insight, it’s what insight is made of. That’s why it’s so important to embrace the kinds of tools that speak the language of each.
Lying latent within massive data sets lies the kind of wisdom that can take a fledgling business to a profitable one, change lives, and better the whole of humanity. But we can’t act on those insights if we don’t understand the knowledge that’s being handed to us in the first place. Visualizing data is the key to unlocking those secrets. It’s the key to understanding, engagement, and, ultimately, change.
Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mjryall/2930508812/