Remember this the next time you see some statistics. Or a report. Or anything that appears on Wikipedia.
Starting today I will be visiting CERN, the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire with 11 other STEM social media advocates. What is CERN? It’s the location of the Large Hadron Collider and the birthplace of the World Wide Web. From the CERN Website:
At CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, physicists and engineers are probing the fundamental structure of the universe. They use the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments to study the basic constituents of matter – the fundamental particles. The particles are made to collide together at close to the speed of light. The process gives the physicists clues about how the particles interact, and provides insights into the fundamental laws of nature.
I will be sharing facts, images and videos via this blog and other social media.
I will be tweeting about this event a lot using the hashtag #CERNTweetup. If you aren’t interested in this sharing, you can use the filtering mechanism of your Twitter client to avoid those tweets.
…or your can use the search feature of your client to follow the tweets of all the invitees. Isn’t metadata great that way?
Today’s SQL Server 2012 Anniversary question is:
I thought the image I created above might inspire you.
Follow @SQLServer on Twitter and answer their daily questions to win fame and prizes.
I’m no expert in graphic design or data visualizations. I do know that pie charts are evil, as are most gauges and uses of 3D in dashboards. However, when I saw this bar chart from the fine folks at Klout, I knew it was a winner. Even the name of this category is wrong: Top Influential companies? No, from their description, this is a list of companies that were most talked about the most often. That doesn’t make a person or an organization influential. Otherwise, I’d be dressing like Kim Kardashian and collecting Justin Bieber dolls with weird "try me" portals.
At best, these companies influenced people to say things about them by doing something well…or in the case of Netflix, doing a lot of things poorly. But they didn’t do the influencing. People on the social networks did.
This data visualization is a list of companies who were most talked about…so they’ve used a bar chart. Bar charts are supposed to be used to show quantities, usually over time or some other measure. But this ranking is not a quantity. In fact, the bar chart is emphasizing the wrong thing, too. Notice how 11th place Facebook has more bar? But it’s in the worst place in the list. Or is it? We don’t know because the bar chart is showing us conflicting information. It could be that the top 11 companies are being ranked 11-1 in descending order based on their
influence mentions. From the list, I’d think think that the influence was descending, but I don’t know. If someone doesn’t know and the visualization adds no more insight than just a list of the companies, don’t add a chart.
Jen Stirrup, BI expert and Microsoft MVP, has some more to say about bad bar charts.
Don’t use bar charts to show rankings. Put down your data viz tool and take a walk. Notice the real world around you, then come back and think about using visualizations to help a reader understand the data better. That’s how to love your data.
One of the more fun types of data is image data, both meta data and actual images. So I turned to Google Maps and Bing Maps to see what various sites at the Kennedy Space Center looked like. Here’s a launch pad from Google Maps. You can see the boosters there.
Then there’s this image of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). At first I was confused why part of this area was blackened out, until I realized the dark area is the shadow from the VAB.
You would probably recognize this building better from these NASA Photos:
And Bing’s Birdseye view of the launch pad, VAB, and viewing area:
The first visualization I saw of the VAB area caused my brain to jump to: "wow, they’ve blacked out some of the Space Center" when all that was going on was a perfectly natural occurrence of sunlight and shadow. I find it interesting that that different views of the same locations (via two different data services, Google and Bing) gives me a different understanding of the same places. There seems to be a lesson there in displaying the same data in many different ways.
In her recent blog post Herding Cats the Hard Way, Karen talked about trying to herd a cat into a cat crate and that it struck her as being similar to trying to work with business users when you treat them like a cat. Karen wrote:
The worst part was not being able to explain to Frank why all this was going on. He had to be treated so there was no question about having to put him through this process. Unlike a business user, though, we don’t have the opportunity to prepare him for the event with good data, analysis of the cost, benefits, and risks of going to the veterinarian. He was blindsided by all of this.
All of this made me think of attending meetings where I really did feel like the cat and, like Frank, wanted or needed to lash out. Over the years I have worked in a number of different areas as both an employee and a consultant and there are times when I’ve been the cat or when I’ve treated others like the cat. We all know the meetings where someone feels like the cat…the person sits there and doesn’t understand what’s happening, they are reticent and don’t want to participate and they may get really defensive. All the while, you’ll be sitting there thinking “What’s the problem here? I just want to make it better.”
At one point in my career I managed a contracting organization and a major client hired a system integrator and bought a new ERP system to do their work management. The system integrator and the company justified this system to the Board of Directors based on benefits or savings and, in fact, the integrator would receive a portion of the savings as part of their contract. Of course we weren’t privy to all of the information, but they wanted us to participate and tell them we were happy and agree with everything they did.
Every time we had one of these meetings there was someone in there asking about benefits. We were okay with that if the benefits were real, but we also foresaw areas where there would be costs associated with using this system. The integrator and company would hold these meetings, lay out the process, ask about benefits, but never talk about costs. In fact, when we asked about costs and how they would be handled we were told that was an issue for another group.
Now I can go with the flow and work through a lot of issues, but just like a cat, eventually I’ll lash out if you keep pushing the wrong way. About halfway through the project we were having another meeting to discuss the process and I talked about how a certain part of the program should be configured. The IROC sitting across the table with pen poised above paper asked “and what’s the benefit of that?” My response was “I’m not going to tell you if there’s a benefit or not.” Everyone in the meeting stopped and looked at me and I said that we would have no further discussions or meetings to discuss benefits until we actually talked about the “elephant in the room”. The meeting was over. Then all of the contractors and the project sponsors had to have a big meeting to talk about what we were trying to achieve and how we should work together and that it was benefits net of costs so we got what we wanted, too.
Just like the cat, there are times when you have to lash out and make it a bit bloody for people to understand that you don’t like something. We business users don’t want to do that, but sometimes that’s the only way to make certain people listen.
So the next time you’re going into a meeting with a business user, another department, a vendor, a customer, etc. think about it. Have you been listening? Have you shown the others that you understand what they want and are working to make that happen?
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