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Tableau Public launches visual analysis for the masses

I’m sorry to tell you serious types out there, but visual analysis is often a game — in fact, one of the best games in town with Tableau Software’s visual analysis tool. Now Tableau Public is going to bring it to the masses.

In the same way that YouTube spawned a surge of new filmmakers, Tableau Public — free, running the same engine as its desktop sibling, and embedable — will bring on a new generation of data players and spectators.

I was a spectator at a data visualization conference one afternoon two years ago. Tableau Software director of visual analysis Jock Mackinlay had finished his presentation and another person had started his. Yet someone at the control board forgot to flip a switch, and Jock’s live screen remained on one of the room’s big screens. Jock assumed his screen had been hidden, and he kept playing with the data. I don’t have to tell you who seemed to have the audience’s attention until someone pointed out the problem.

The mere visual distraction was minor. Even without narration, I got caught up in the apparent drama as he tried one look at the data after another.

Not long after that, I wondered aloud to someone at Tableau about data hobbyists. I imagined people who foraged for data to analyze then publicize it to start conversations, collaboration, or duels. Data would be their raw material of choice just as scrap metal is to some sculptors or overheard conversations is to some fiction writers.

There was no such community visible then. But I realized this week that I know one now: Dan Murray, a skilled, dedicated Tableau user. He jokes that he’s a “freak” because he analyzes data from the federal budget and posts his often provocative analyses. He’s already been answered by at least one who disagrees with him.

In beta and since its February 11 launch, Tableau Public has hosted a flurry of visualizations, including these: a map of top venture capital firms investments by U.S. region; a chart showing how long it takes to build a technology empire; a history of earthquakes in Haiti; a neighborhood breakdown of housing supply in Seattle; trends in U.S. high school graduation; and studies of deprivation and marginalization in education. In most cases, spectators can become players by selecting subsets of the data to find answers to their own questions.

With popularity comes some misuse. Many of the charts will break rules, such as what happens in another kind of game, YouTube. A New York film editor I know complains that many YouTube-acculturated film editors have neglected basic editing principles. She writes that they rely so much on special effects that they “can’t put two shots together and have them work as an unembellished edit.” On Tableau Public, there will be pie charts, chart junk, and even baselines that do not start at zero. We’ll survive it.

But what’s all this got to do with the very serious practice of business intelligence?

Like monks must have done when printing presses began producing books for the masses, many priests of business intelligence will stand aside, arms folded in the aspe chapel. But I predict that before long even they will appreciate a wider, deeper pool of analytical talent ripening for training and employment.

I suspect that the new bunch will have been sharpened by the give and take of public exposition. They’ll also learn from playing in a huge community the way artists and craftspeople of all kinds improve their skills when they bump into peers every day.

This is a new clue for the future of BI. It can’t help but improve data analysis in business. So let the games begin.

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