Turning Meaningless Data into Meaningful Data

Your entire life is based on data. Things like the person you marry, your job, where you send your children to school, your doctor, and the type of car you drive, all depend on data.

Good data gets us to a specific destination. It answers questions for us. Dirty data leaves us confused.

Data presentation, actionable data, and business context are vital to the success of your data decisions.

Let's Play a Game

Take a look at the pie chart. (Click on the chart to see it larger.) Answer the following questions:

  1. Which team has the most championships?
  2. Which team has the second most championships?
  3. Which team has the fewest championships?

Pie chart comparing football team championships.
Caption
Pie chart comparing football team championships.

Now, take a look at the bar chart and answer the following questions. Note: the answers are not the same as before.

  1. Which team has the most championships?
  2. Which team has the second most championships?
  3. Which team has the fewest championships?

Bar chart comparing football team championships.
Caption
Bar chart comparing football team championships.

The pie chart is confusing isn’t it? Some of the slices look like they’re the same size. However, you can look at the bar chart and instantly know which team has the most championships. The bar chart is stacked neatly from high to low.

Here are the answers:

Pie Chart
Most: Seahawks
Second Most: Patriots
Fewest: Falcons

Bar Chart
Most: Rams
Second Most: Falcons
Fewest: Seahawks

Lessons Learned

What does this simple test show us about data and how it’s represented?

Lesson 1: Presentation Matters

First, it shows us that presenting data is just as important as the data itself.

Lesson 2: Base Your Visualization on Your Goals

The second lesson we learn is that data visualization is useful for:

  • Comparing values
  • Showing the composition of something
  • Understanding distribution
  • Analyzing trends in a data set
  • Seeing relationships between value sets

Think about your role and the different ways you use data every day. You might even use data and not realize it. Maybe you work with content on your website, or you work at a call center, or in community affairs, on different projects, or maybe work in IT.

Regardless of your role, data visualization can help you answer questions and make better business decision.

For example, data visualization can help you:

  • Compare website traffic
  • Evaluate agency peak call volume times
  • Spot a housing or a financial crisis before it hits
  • Improve resource planning for your projects
  • Determine risk and exposure trends

This is the power of data visualization. It helps us see what our brains cannot. Our brains spot shapes and patterns. Data visualization gives us information so we can digest it and act on it.

Lesson 3: Context Changes Everything

The third lesson we learn is that data visualization needs business context to work. Otherwise, it’s garbage.

Here are some points to keep in mind when evaluating your data:

  1. Seek to inform and not to persuade.
    When your data informs it allows the end-user to bring their questions to the forefront. Persuasive data rigs the data to a more favorable position. This can be seen as dishonest. A car salesman does not inform. Rather, he persuades to improve his personal commission.
  2. Every data point has a value attached to it, but the patterns and trends are what matter most.
    Focus on the trends and the patterns that are depicted in your data. Hold internal discussions to determine what is occurring in the agency. Be careful, though, not to confuse a symptom with a root cause.
  3. Always assume there is an error in your data
    Cautiously approach your data. Look for errors throughout the data cleansing and migration process. Review the results again once your data of combining data.

Example: Boston is correct. CA is correct. Boston, CA is inaccurate.

Bonus Round: Choosing the Right Visualization

How do I visualize data for any given situation? Here are the best types of charts and graphs to use to:

COMPARE values:
Column
Bar
Circular Area
Line
Scatter Plot
Bullet

Show the COMPOSITION of something:
Pie
Stacked Bar
Stacked Column
Area
Waterfall

Understand the DISTRIBUTION of your data:
Scatter Plot
Line
Column
Bar

ANALYZE TRENDS in your data set:
Line
Dual-Axis Line
Column

See the relationship BETWEEN value sets:
Scatter Plot
Bubble
Line
Heat Map

Good Data Is:

  • Technically accessible
  • Legally accessible
  • Action-oriented: decision, conclusion, exclusion
  • Number based: raw, percentage, dollar
  • Maintained
  • Shared – internally or externally

Why Do We Care About Data?

Your data is valuable and it deserves to be seen. Good data drives good decisions. This means data stops hiding inside of a spreadsheet and data is shared. Choose to share your data internally, with other agencies, or with those you serve. Interested? Open a ticket and let’s start the data conversation.

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