Month: July 2014

Double-cream pays a visit: the foes of data storytelling take aim

The stage lights go up, the cue is given, and the much-anticipated DataStorytelling strides in from stage left, and the spotlight focuses. Then from somewhere outside the light a pie lands on Storytelling’s face. Whipped cream flies everywhere, and the curtain falls.

Who could have done this? The audience murmurs, and backstage the crew stare at each other in shock. Everyone likes stories, don’t they? And we all like data, don’t we?

Detectives arrive. They dismiss out of hand assurances that DataStorytelling has no enemies, only friends. In fact, they insist, there are many potential perpetrators.

The data sentries are questioned first, being immediately available. These are the analysts armed with Excel and a little chutzpah. They know a threat when they see one. To hell with story, they say! Who needs a damn story when you can have data? Pure, lovely data! Especially when it’s clean and neat, all stacked up in rows and columns.

That round of questioning quickly leads to the inner circle: the data scientists. Under questioning, the scientists squirm in long white lab coats and nervously stroke their best friends, their lab rats. We have no objection to stories, they plead, as long as all the data is presented just so. Frankly, they go on, we ignore stories. The only real way to grasp nature is with data. Who needs stories? Who needs the drama? We’ve got calculus!

To the detectives, it all adds up. These people think life starts and ends with data, one detective says to the other. When the data people talk about a Yankees game, their account begins with the final score and wanders into pitcher stats, a batter’s RBI, and other figures. The listener who asks for reasons gets more data. Accounts of critical innings in which the batter with a low average suffered through balls and strikes and who at the last moment got a hit that should have scored three and got only two — these accounts are mainly told in data, with scant drama.

Finally, the forensics report comes in. The results are shocking: they implicate “solutions” vendors. They were assumed to be friendly to the hero DataStorytelling, but it turns out their friendship was compromised at best.

One lab worker even found out that when a certain vendor failed to win recognition as the preeminent storytelling tool, it decided it wouldn’t try at all. The company’s tweets abruptly stopped mentioning storytelling.

Detectives visit the corporate offices. “Going forward,” the CEO says coolly while his T-shirt crackles with starch, “we are focusing on greater opportunities.”

In their car outside, the detectives put it all together. “Storytelling without marketing behind it,” one says, “is like a Mob guy without his pals. You’re on your own then.” The other one says, “So this guy may not be the perp, but he may lead us to them.”

Back in the office, the forensics lab had a new surprise: a blond hair in the whipped cream has been traced to the marketing staff at another vendor. The detectives arrive at the vendor’s marketing department and find only one person at work. Several others are slumped over keyboards, and two are asleep under desks. “Deadlines,” someone explains. The marketing VP, having heard she has visitors, hurries in. “Blond hair?” she laughs, relieved that the question is so easily brushed off. “No one here!”

Outside, one detective says, “I can’t see how any of them have the time for whipped cream.” The other adds, “Unless a contractor did it.”

When the cream comes off DataStorytelling’s face and action resumes, the theater audience will try to forget and fall back into the story. According to the script, DataStorytelling is hailed as a hero from opening curtain to curtain call. It’s no real story at all, many admit, but it sells tickets.

Maybe the pie really is part of the real story. This is DataStorytelling’s complicated rise. No new, important force, after all, rises without resistance. The more significant and threatening it is, the greater the resistance — and the more surprising the culprits.

The case remains open for now. Any leads would be appreciated.

Tune in for the next episode.

Tell BARC about your BI

I am acutely aware that I work at arm’s length from actual users of the data products I ghostwrite on behalf of. The users are there, I know, even if they are only phantoms to me. The wisps of data collected in surveys provide some of the few signs that I or many of my colleagues ever sense a pulse out there in that other world.

Surveys are good links to that other world. When survey data comes along, I see what it’s made of. Does it blow away like fog, such as when the data is too thin? Or does it give me the feeling I’m touching something real and alive, such as when the data’s solid and the questions probe multiple dimensions?

The annual BARC report is one of the good ones. I’ve never verified their claim to be “the world’s largest survey of business intelligence software users,” but I suspect it’s true. This year’s 3,149 responses is hard to beat.

One of the chewy bits is BARC’S Business Benefits Index. It’s a matrix of benefit quality, from none to proven, with a weighted variety of benefit types.

It’s a relief, after all the hype I help generate, to see data that people actually get results. In the survey’s business benefit index, a composite weighted score for each benefit, 80 percent reported “faster reporting, analysis, and planning.” Also, 71 percent reported “more accurate reporting, analysis, and planning.”

But then I notice a unpleasant bulge on the not-so-good edge of the spectrum for “increased revenues”; 38 percent “didn’t know” about that, while over on the other end a mere 9 percent had quantified this very quantifiable metric. But I’ll take encouragement where I can get it.

BARC is based in Germany under Dr. Carsten Bange, who’s been a generous source of insights to me and others I know. He’s also a frequent speaker at BI events, such as at TDWI Munich.

The organization seems intent on protecting the survey’s integrity. For one thing, they’ve tried hard to avoid the old trap of relying on a few customers of a few vendors. Instead, BARC persuaded vendors to promote the survey publicly to recruit not just customers but anyone else who happened by.

As meaty as the 2013 BARC survey is, you could help make this year’s even meatier. The survey closes on July 14 — barely more than a week from now. I don’t know how they’re doing so far, but surveys always benefit from more respondents.

Click here and give your data.