When I think about the future of data visualization, it is useful to reflect on where we are and how we got here.
- The age of the customer, more and more companies prioritizing the need for customer empathy and understanding.
- A business environment driven by technology and platforms.
- An ability to collect “everything”.
- Agile is mandatory, so there is an expectation that we’ll respond faster and faster to an ever-changing world.
- The need for ROI rules, so our actions must lead to strong business outcomes.
Quite a challenge, but let’s learn from what has worked before.
Over a decade ago, like many, I was mesmerised by the work of Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician, academic and public speaker, who brought dramatic flair to animated visualisations of dry public health data. I still remember the story of 200 Countries, 200 Years in 4 minutes. This ‘Joy of Stats’ by Rosling is storytelling with data at high impact. It was said by many that Hans Rosling had the ability to “make the data dance”. But, a key lesson for us is that Hans Rosling knew what type of data would lend itself to very compelling and memorable stories. He made sure he had gathered the right strands of information and had created a data model and a mental model of how they fitted together. Showing lifespan and wealth over time by country was very relevant to anyone that was lucky enough to view it. The presentation enables ordinary humans (like me) to easily grasp and visualise multiple dimensions of data simultaneously, with ease. And, before you know it, you have made sense of 5 sets of data. I understood it and I remember it because Mr Rosling knew that having the data is not enough. You have to show it to people in ways they both enjoy and understand. This is as close as I have seen to the term ‘humanising data’.
The teams that “make the data dance”, and create memorable and impactful outcomes via data visualization for their clients and stakeholders, will be those that can bring multiple data streams together to reveal what is really happening. One set of data does not normally tell you the answer. Different data sets have been historically hard to join, and harder yet to make sense of, but this is the challenge. Those that win will have tools that can easily combine historic and live information in real-time, to uncover what is really happening. Like Hans did.
Once we have the data and create the story, we have to communicate it effectively and at the speed of business. We need to allow businesses to easily store and manage a wide variety of data sets from almost any source, we need to enable the user to easily merge data from various data sets. Our tools need to make it easy to uncover truths that may not otherwise be seen, highlighting opportunities and reducing the need for further research. These new solutions require an architecture that allows subject searches and analysis to be conducted, in a fraction of the time of more traditional solutions. Analysts need to be able to run a complex customer query whilst on a call with a stakeholder, and for this request to quickly visualize multiple data sources, both live and static, to give you the complete picture of what is happening in your business. This is about facilitating effective communication.
Just like Hans did.
The future of data visualisation and integration will therefore rely on platforms and people equally. People to define what things the business needs to know about, to know what data makes sense to combine, and then to effectively communicate the story. Platforms to deliver the integration via simple UI that mere mortals can use, at the speed required to make an insight valuable to business. If we can deliver on both, then I believe many of the promises big data has made will finally come to fruition. A new competitive advantage for marketers will be born and the data will again dance.
Just like Hans did.