First comes the data story, then comes the shadow

Nothing interesting goes without simultaneous celebration and condemnation. Back in 2008 when I wrote that “Tableau is the new Apple,” data visualization was widely pooh-poohed. “Pretty pictures,” I heard so many say.

Now the pretty boy is data storytelling. “Cue the data storytellers,” which ran in Information Management the other day, got a good round of tweets (62 by Wednesday night). But the few complaints were also fun.

It’s easy to brush off the silly stuff. One self-identified data scientist grumbled in a tweet the morning “Cue” appeared, “We don’t need more storytellers … We need more talent.” Somehow, this person’s presumably logical mind construed the choice to be one or the other.

Perhaps the sight of “story” touching “data” excites anxiety among those who still believe, despite the evidence, that data is by nature true like a compass. These are the dreamers.

The story-first people are the realists. They know that data is just a fact like any other. If data’s a compass, data analysts have magnets they wave at it.

Data is nothing without a story wrapped around it, explicit or not. If a story isn’t offered by the analyst, it’s conjured by the consumer. We live by stories, conscious and unconscious. Stories eat data and spit out the feathers.

I’m a story-firster. When cave people lit a camp fire, they told stories. “One night, they ran out of firewood and the aardvarks came in and ate them all,” was no doubt one early one. Only later did they quantify their firewood or count their toes and the shiny eyes from just beyond the light.

Of course, sooner or later someone invented the stove — followed immediately by stories told in different ways. The saved labor, for example, might have made stories much, much longer. “You wouldn’t believe who I ran into at the market today!…” was probably how one started.

Technology came and went, and stories adapted. In books, people told stories with words and graphics. In songs, they told stories in lyrics. In oil painting, images. On the side of trains, spray paint. In solitary confinement, they tapped on pipes and shouted through the plumbing — morphing to suit each medium. Each method was artful.

Now here comes data, followed right behind by visualized data and right behind it by data stories. And right behind those two come the story purists who despair of the new form.

I’ve already debated the first purist. Stay tuned for that account.

The data industry thrives on conversation. Please submit a comment.

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