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Month: February 2016

Data guided, not data driven

I like data same as the next guy. But I don’t like pronouncements like the one I heard at an industry event last year: “If it isn’t data, it doesn’t exist.”

Let’s get ahold of ourselves. Sure, data gives grounding. It’s a starting point, and it’s even a GPS. But there’s much more to any decision.

It used to be taboo to say that around the business intelligence industry. Almost 10 years ago, I repeated to a data warehouse expert what I had heard from a renegade inventor, that business users knew their own data. “No!” the expert protested. But things have changed. (See “BI consolidation first hand,” 2007.)

Just the other day, I was encouraged by the response from Qlik business analytics strategist James Richardson responded to my mention of “…it doesn’t exist”:

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As if our data didn’t have enough problems

The assessment of worldwide threats issued yesterday by director of national intelligence James Clapper has one more topic for panel discussions at data-industry events. The Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community says the Ruskies, Chinese, and others will “almost certainly” try to do more with our data than to steal it.

Future cyber operations will almost certainly include an increased emphasis on changing or manipulating data to compromise its integrity (i.e., accuracy and reliability) to affect decisionmaking, reduce trust in systems, or cause adverse physical effects. Broader adoption of IoT devices and [artificial intelligence] — in settings such as public utilities and health care — will only exacerbate these potential effects. Russian cyber actors, who post disinformation on commercial websites, might seek to alter online media as a means to influence public discourse and create confusion. Chinese military doctrine outlines the use of cyber deception operations to conceal intentions, modify stored data, transmit false data, manipulate the flow of information, or influence public sentiments — all to induce errors and miscalculation in decisionmaking.

“Big changes” in storytelling: simple and simplistic

The storytelling world shook this morning with this headline from Tableau: “Data storytelling is undergoing a big change.” The blog post lists three changes: scrolling with less clicking, simpler charts, and visualizations that weave into the narrative.

What is really changing? Not much, and to call it “big changes” is worthy of a trashy tabloid newspaper.

Here’s what should change: Tableau’s leadership in storytelling. So far, Tableau has been a hammer that sees only nails. In storytelling, it sees only another use for data visualization.

The trouble here is that this blog post is sheer marketing when the data storytelling genre needs actual leadership right now. That could come from others in the organization. Founders Pat Hanrahan and quasi-founder Jock Mackinlay know what a story is. So does Robert Kosara, a Tableau research scientist.

Any of these three might have put these supposed changes into perspective. What’s changing, I suspect they’d say, is adoption of a simpler style. But they don’t bother with relatively trivial news, only the mighty marketing arm does.

What I’d like to hear from Tableau is help in working out the data story genre — which already includes much more than visualization. Data stories in text can be seen all the time, such as in the New York Times Upshot column.

Help define the genre, Tableau. Don’t squander the promise of storytelling by leaving it all to marketing.

What’s actually changed in storytelling? Not much: Simpler styles, perhaps, but certainly we have the same old, simplistic hype that distorts otherwise useful terms.