Why ‘seeing’ your data is the key to understanding it

By on April 22, 2014

Data visualisation is no longer a question off knocking up a few graphs. Modern techniques are vital for discovering patterns, unveiling trends and revealing unexpected insights, says James Eiloart.

In quick-fire markets, high-pressure decisions have to be made very rapidly, and guided by a volume of data and information that simply did not exist just a few years ago. Every day 2.5 billion gigabytes of data are created – enough to fill over 27,000 iPads every minute.

The challenge facing firms is how to quickly analyse and find insights within this sea of data, and identify facts that can be acted upon to add value to the business. The answer is data visualisation, the use of interactive, infographic-style presentations to rapidly cut and correlate datasets in new and potentially valuable ways.

The point is, it’s much easier for people to understand data when they see it visually. And when people see and understand their data, it can be acted upon quickly.

A picture is worth a thousand numbers

Visual analytics is the process of taking data and turning it into a graphical representation or visualisation, whether that be a chart, graph or map, so people can instantly see and understand trends. If one variable is changed, the graphic also changes—making it easier for people to interact, explore and explain the story their data is telling them, in real-time. And with the right tools anyone can do it, you don’t need to be an expert in data science or have a PhD in statistics.

The days of boring graphs and minimal insight from internal meetings and presentations – because people can’t see past the wrong font or colour shade – should be gone. Effective data visualisations force people to concentrate on what matters – the value and the insight that the data gives.

Story-telling through data

Presenting data to managers, colleagues, investors or other stakeholders is challenging without adding some context. Tables of data within massive slide decks are confusing and distracting. Symbols, pictures, graphs and charts are effective means to visually communicate a story and engage the audience. A well-chosen and well-crafted visualisation allows you to introduce characters, challenges, and progress – and allows the audience to interact, taking the story down their own path.

Data-driven decision making

One of the main benefits of taking a visual approach to data is speed of understanding. Research by the Aberdeen Group last year demonstrated organisations that take a visual approach to exploring their data are 28 percent more likely to identify timely insights that can be acted upon and drive competitive advantage. SpareBank 1 Forsikring, a Norwegian insurance business, projects that by harnessing data visualisations it is set to realise R419.5 million in revenue over three years through time savings and increased business opportunities.

The evolution of the data scientist

One of the consequences of the explosion of big data has been the emergence of data scientists in business. These people do a fantastic job of exploring and examining data from many sources, then tell the business why it matters.

But companies should not just focus on hiring high-level data wizards, or succumb to the temptation of restricting data to a gate keeper within a business. Providing simple easy-to-use tools means everyone should benefit from the data discovery revolution taking place. This democratisation of data allows everyone in the organisation to find his or her own insights to increase their performance and productivity.

The Economist Intelligence Unit has found that companies that rate themselves substantially ahead of their peers in their use of data are three times more likely to also rate themselves as substantially ahead in financial performance.

Data for everyone

Businesses have access to more data than ever, but it isn’t powerful until it’s understood. People think visually, and so visual analysis is the most effective and efficient way to extracting insight and value. Visualisations allow people to see and understand their data. This in turn helps solve the many challenges of today’s data-heavy world.

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