Using Data Visualisation to Drive Actionable Intelligence

In December 2014, Signal Noise were joined by 12 senior marketers, journalists, producers and product specialists from some of the UK’s largest and most influential companies to discuss the world of data visualisation.

We talked about how data is seen from within our respective organisations, the challenges that data inherently poses and the tools and processes in place to overcome them.

This blog post highlights some of the key areas of discussion. Enjoy.

1: VALUABLE DATA

It’s clear that data is playing an increasingly important role in the success of businesses.

During our roundtable event, we heard how each business had noticed a step-change in their attitudes towards data over the past 4 years – businesses operating in a vast range of sectors from Finance to Media, Security to Entertainment.

The focus on data shows no signs of fading. Instead, it’s becoming more and more ingrained in the everyday decisions we make, and the responsibility to digest and interrogate data no longer lies with the geeks and techies. As data has made its way out of the IT department, businesses have been confronted with new challenges: How should we collect data? What should we be looking for? How do we communicate data to a less technically savvy audience? Where does data belong in our creative process?

2: WHAT IS DATA?

We know that data is playing a central role in the way we do business – but what is it? Here’s an introduction to some of the sources and styles of data out there:

Owned

This is the data that businesses collect organically by being alive: customer & employee information, campaign analytics, financial performance etc…

Paid

The monetisation of data is nothing new and there is a whole range of data available to purchase. This can be a great way to bolster your own data sources or a quick way to gather insights that you are not able to track yourselves.

Open

Thanks to the ‘Open Data’ movement it’s easy (and free) to get your hands on anything from Arts and Culture data, from the team at Data Hack, to live traffic information from the highways agency. You can also find a wealth of Governmental data around public spending, transport and weather. If you’d like to find out more about what Open Data can do for your business then get yourself down to Open Data Camp’s next session.

Historic

If you’re interested in detecting trends over time, then it’s historical data you’ll be after. From the Central English Temperature records, dating back to 1659, to Ipsos Mori’s historical voting intentions for UK general elections stretching back to 1974, historical data allows for in depth analysis and is integral to predictive analysis.

Live

This is where things get even more interesting. Live data gives you the ability to make decisions in real time, replacing post-analysis as data can be visualised in a way that flags trends, anomalies and deviations that allow for quick decision making. From viewing live sales data to the speed, position and drag of a sports car, this data opens up a world of possibilities for real-time visualisations.

Qualitative / quantitative

For many, the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about data is numbers. It’s true that many of the world’s biggest data collectors harvest information in this format: How many clicks? In what volume? In what distances?

However data isn’t always purely about numbers – analysis, commentary and written information play an equally important part in telling the whole story and ensure that the importance of human intuition isn’t forgotten.

Here we see how different data types can be combined to generate distinctly different insights.
Deriving Insight from Data diagram

DataStrategies

A data strategy not only dictates how these data types should be stored, shared and maintained, but it should identify how multiple data types can be combined to enhance a company’s performance across a multitude of areas.

An information design strategy can also be implemented at this level to ensure data-driven insights are being communicated in the right ways to important areas of the business (both internally and externally).

3: A GROWING APPETITE

Everyone that attended the session has seen the value of data increase in their businesses over the last 4 years.

People are flooded with data and information – from quantified self data like the quality of your sleep or the number of minutes until your next bus, through to the many reports and company stats you deal with on a daily basis.

We’ve come to expect, and rely upon, data – and this has lead to a growing appetite for new and exciting ways to engage with it. So, whilst your audience will be receptive to your data, they’re also becoming pretty difficult to impress.

The need for transparency is also becoming harder to hide away from – not only should your data be communicated visually, it should show a level of depth and insight that gives people confidence in the integrity of the data.

Data design is a great vehicle for meeting these needs – it makes it easier for your readers to digest information whilst allowing your content to stand out from the crowd.

4: BAD INFORMATION DESIGN NEVER KILLED ANYONE…RIGHT?

During the session we heard how in extreme instances, poor communication of data can have fatal consequences. We looked back to the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster where information critical to the safe return of the shuttles 7 crew members was miscommunicated in the documentation circulated ahead of take-off.

Failure of a small rubber component known as an ‘O-Ring’ resulted in the loss of all 7 crew members 73 seconds after lift-off. The following chart demonstrates historical O-Ring failures in pre-launch testing:

​Data Visualisation pioneer Edward Tufte highlights the failings of the above documentation

The original chart made it hard for analysts to see the correlation between outside temperature and O-ring damage. Had they mapped the data using the Edward Tufte’s graph they would have seen that when the temperature fell below 55 degrees fahrenheit, the level of damage increasedfour fold, making the low temperature on the day of launch an accident waiting to happen.

This harrowing example underlines the importance of data visualisation and how easy it can be for crucial insights to go by unnoticed.

Edward Tufte's reworked visualisation

The original chart made it hard for analysts to see the correlation between outside temperature and O-ring damage. Had they mapped the data using the Edward Tufte’s graph they would have seen that when the temperature fell below 55 degrees fahrenheit, the level of damage increasedfour fold, making the low temperature on the day of launch an accident waiting to happen.

This harrowing example underlines the importance of data visualisation and how easy it can be for crucial insights to go by unnoticed.

5: THE POWER OF PERSUASION

Successful pieces of visual communication contain all the ingredients required to change or reaffirm perceptions on all kinds of subjects.

They contain narrative, they provide context, they catch the eye of the viewer and they offer up information in a form that allows users to interrogate and arrive at conclusions under their own steam.

Data visualisation has a unique ability to cut through the endless stream of emails, workshops, meetings, post-it notes, presentations and spreadsheets that have become so ingrained in corporate problem solving and new product development. Because of this unique ability to summarise, excite and engage audiences regardless of skillset, data visualisation can make the difference between a project making it to market, or collecting dust in the archives.

“We showed exactly the same data but visualised and everybody said – Oh my god!”

6: DATA: THE DEATH OF INTUITION?

As we’ve mentioned, data, and data visualisation, can help your business be more successful: it can help you develop a strategy that is likely to increase engagement and provide stimulus for ideas around products and services that your audience will want to buy and use.

However, as in all methods, there are pitfalls.

In our discussion we heard that there’s a worry about a shift towards ‘content by numbers’ and blindly following the statistics, wherever they may lead you.

Intuition and creativity are human phenomena that can’t be emulated by computers or algorithms, and shouldn’t be undervalued. An example that was used in our discussion was the television show ‘House of Cards’. The producers knew Kevin Spacey was a great actor and they knew that Political Drama worked. Statistically it was probable that the show would be a hit. Crucially, however, they added to the formula the directorial flair, the engaging narrative and the intelligent writing and it was the combination of these things that made it a success.

Data can give you the basis for a decision, a campaign or a product (and the importance of that shouldn’t be underrated) but it’ll always be the creativity and intuition that ultimately determines the success.

Both are great human characteristics and ‘following your gut’ shouldn’t be a method that gets lost in the archives. In some cases it will get you further than following the data ever will.

7: PROCESS

Having talked about the value of data visualisation in today’s world, we then looked towards another (and perhaps the most critical) challenge presented to businesses by data: how do we go about communicating it successfully?

To help answer this question, we have designed a framework that ensures that all the potential factors and questions are considered during the planning and execution of data visualisations across print, digital, static and interactive:

In Summary

We hope this blog post shines some light on the challenges posed by today’s data driven world. We extend our thanks to everybody that attended the session

and look forward to continuing discussions soon!

For any further enquires please contact: hem@signal-noise.co.uk

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