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Month: August 2011

“Data bounces … behind your eyeballs”

If no one sees a piece of data, does it exist? Andrew Walkingshaw asks in his post “Data as process.”

Data only exists inasmuch as it supports either communication or decision-making. When it’s not being looked at, whether by a person or a process, it’s as if it had never been at all.

Instead, he writes, data is really about processes.

How do people make decisions? How do they communicate and support their viewpoints? These processes are supported by technology, but they’re rooted in psychology and economics.

He goes further.

Steve Jobs on elegant, simple solutions, and a plea

I hate to be so timely, but I saw a Steve Jobs quote today that I like.

When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there.

He’s talking about design, but it goes for so many other things we do in the analytics industry, such as visualization, business analysis, public speaking, and writing.

So often, I struggle through someone’s blog post, webinar, or viz only to wish I hadn’t. The payoff was too small. Had the author given it more thought, it might have become something or at least my effort would have seemed worth it.

My columns on BI This Week

Sometimes I’m a complete idiot. I’ve been writing a monthly column for TDWI’s BI This Week since the beginning of 2011 — after a break of almost two years — and I have never posted a link. No good self promoter would have neglected to do that.

Well, here’s a link to all of them. Being a search-results page for “Cuzzillo,” it also includes a mention here and there of me. The list goes all the way back to 2007 and “Personal Data Warehouses: Challenging a Single Version of the Truth.” Back then, “single version” was still sacred.

Big BI and the ladder man to come calling at the Tableau conference

Howard Dresner is a celebrity in the business intelligence industry, but most people at last year’s Tableau conference didn’t even recognize him when he showed up there.

Who needs BI? Tableau Software liked to think it had left BI behind. BI people, after all, were the control freaks who denied access to data. They sneered at Tableau’s “pretty pictures.” They cared more about data hygiene than data analysis.

But there he was. Stephen Few spotted him in the audience a few minutes into his keynote and paused to wonder if it was really him. Tableau vice president of marketing Elissa Fink welcomed him. I and some others said hello. Mostly he wandered alone.

But he’s coming back this year — to speak. He’ll be among 10 on the “experts track” at the Tableau Customer Conference in Las Vegas. Others include BI veteran Claudia Imhoff, Cindi Howson of “BI Scorecard,” and Performance Dashboards author Wayne Eckerson.

They’re all worth listening to. But the one most Tableau people would feel at home with is Paul Kedrosky. Unlike the others, he’s not from the BI world at all. He’s an “investor, speaker, writer, media guy, and entrepreneur,” according to his blog’s “about” page. But I know him as the man who counts ladders.

At last fall’s Defrag conference in Boulder, he told about using the California Highway Patrol’s count of fallen ladders on freeways as a leading economic indicator. Who says data must come from conventional sources? He’s serious and creative, a mix Tableau people appreciate.

He’s written that we live in a “golden age of data visualization,” but I’ve found no elaboration. I’ll be listening for that.

As for the other nine “experts,” the first thing I’ll look for is the size of their audiences.

Skinning “analytics,” the word

“Analytics,” the term, has been twisted so badly that Wayne Eckerson last month felt moved to rescue it with a definition. Rather, two definitions, possibly more.

One definition is capitalized, the other is not. What “analytics” might mean in italics, all caps, or underlined he doesn’t say.

Whatever the typography, Wayne just might have the stature to make it all stick. He’s been around the industry for nearly two decades, now as the TechTarget director of research and president of BI Leader Consulting. People know him, respect him, and like him.

The capital-A meaning takes the “macro perspective.” He says it’s “the processes, technologies, and best practices that turns data into information and knowledge that drives business decisions and actions.” The small-A version means “various technologies that business people use to analyze data.”

Referring to Tom Davenport’s use of “analytics” in his book titles instead of “business intelligence,” Wayne seems to imply that “analytics” should replace it elsewhere, too.

That suits me. “Analytics” does something “BI” can’t do. It throws light on the real point of the industry: making sense of data.

But Wayne’s proposal is doomed. No definition will stick that makes us refer to a dictionary before each use. I would still have to pause before dropping either one into a conversation, and that would probably be the same for most other people, I suspect. That kills it.

Am I the only slow learner around here? I asked for opinions from my modest network of data analysts. A reply came from just one of them (who asked for anonymity), far fewer than normal. That analyst emailed that he doesn’t care what “analytics” means. He added, “What is the deal with such pompous, elaborate definitions?”

Exactly. What is the deal?

The terms that stick do so in an instant. Tableau seems to have pulled it off with its word for visualizations, “viz.” It’s simple and sounds like it must have been picked up on “the street.” They also repeat it often in their blog, and a cadre of devoted users sing along.

Wayne muses toward the end of his post, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Yes, sooner or later, we’ll come up with a best practice. But for now, this cat has run away, unskinned.