I’m damn sick of using Excel and Powerpoint to make stuff, or: why media & strategy folks should stop worrying and learn to love visual data



We are in an era of ‘big data.’  IBM declared “2012 is the year of analytics.”

This is something I heard more than once across a few sessions.  The issue was best articulated in a presentation called “Rethinking How to Communicate Science,” presented by Laura Hermann, SVP of the Potomac Communications Group.

No, don’t stop reading, I swear this is relevant to media and strategists.

Between site analytics, digital media performance, demographic research, ratings trends…….we’re surrounded by data.  A major part of our jobs involves compilation and comprehension of lots of data, from lots of different sources (ComScore, Forrester, Simmons, Google Analytics, Omniture, to name a few).  Through all of that, we are challenged regularly to ‘find a story’ out of all of this AND present that to our clients, to justify what we’re recommending.  It’s an art, but rooted in science.  It’s hard.  We’re not statisticians; some of us still use our fingers to count.  We’re not artists, but we’re trying our damndest to get that chart to look really great.

This session made me realize that we’re not the only industry struggling with the relatively recent influx of data, and how to best utilize and present it in a compelling way for our audience.  How can we be responsible for the information we now have access to, package it in a good way, and keep the integrity?

Taking it up to a macro level, here’s the gist, followed by a deep dive:

1. There’s more information in the world than ever, and data is being used in different ways by more people.

2. But, how we create/collect information is different than how we facilitate information.

3. Bridge the gap between collection and facilitation via data visualization, which preserves the context of the information.

4. Give everyone involved in data presentation but not skilled in design programs full access to a designer.  I want her cell phone number and home address so that I can get her to make me infographics at 2 AM. (ok, maybe the last one is mine).

Personally, I am more compelled than ever to create visualizations of this data – it makes it easier to analyze, and it’s easier for someone not close to the data to glean the point. The presentation echoed this sentiment, and provided a great exposition on the trend of ‘big data’ and why it’s important to keep cognizant of the context, and how visualization works to achieve that.

There’s more information, and it’s being used by more people

Across disciplines, we’ve got 1) more tools that collect data and 2) technological advances in data processing and high fidelity computing.  These have resulted in greater amounts of data, better accessibility and much quicker analysis – now we’ve got a lot more source material. Here are a couple of real life examples of what ‘more data’ means:

–          Thanks to the Obama transparency memo, it’s now government policy to make any data they collect for all of the agencies (department of agriculture, commerce, defense, education, etc.) available to the public.  They’ve done this via  The kind of data housed on is expansive; it ranges from information on US overseas loans, consumer expenditure surveys, earthquake locations – just about anything (the government is very, very busy).  Interested parties (universities, scientists, statisticians, plebeians, etc.) across all fields are now accessing this data to create meaningful mash-ups, tell stories, and drill down into things they never have before.

–          Complex statistical models, once solely used by mathematicians and scientists – are now being used by police agencies.  In the early nineties, the NYPD began tracking crime locations via pins on maps – fast forward a few years, and this has evolved into Compstat – short for COMPuter STATistics.  It’s a full-blown organizational management tool; a ‘multilayered dynamic approach to crime reduction, quality of life improvement, and personnel and resource management.’

–          But it’s not just scientists and organizations that are implementing advanced data collection techniques and performing analysis.  Now every individual can perform data collection – on themselves.  Calorie trackers, athletic achievements tracked via Nike Plus – there are a slew of tools and mobile apps that help us quantify an aspect of our lives (and this technology is advancing too, but that’s another discussion).

Facts aren’t good enough anymore – context is key, and visuals are great

Copernicus didn’t look into a telescope and understand the universe.  The telescope is just a tool.  Our measurement tools are like telescopes – they bring the external world closer, but without analytics – they just provide data points. Increased resolution does not increase clarity.  50 years ago, a scientist might say to another scientist, ‘the facts speak for themselves’ and that would be understood.  But now that heady scientific issues are on the forefront of societal concern – climate change, biotech – facts are not persuasive in and of themselves.  Facts don’t put things into context; certainly not when most people do not have a mathematical or scientific background.

If we’re in an age of ‘big data’, it’s certainly true that we’re also in an age of infographics (here’s a great example from the genius of XKCD).  As societal appetite to understand more complex issues increases, infographics have become popular.  It’s a fascinating integration of art and science that makes information accessible to wider audiences, and most importantly, contextualizes that information for those audiences.  After all, 60% of our frontal cortex is dedicated to processing visual information – making things visual provides a better way to communicate to more people; it increases understanding and recall of information.

Some thoughts on what this means for media and strategists

If data visualization is the best way to present complex facts in the right context to a broad audience, then I need to be working more closely with design people, so that I can tell my story better.  I don’t have the expertise to build out a great looking chart – sure, I can slap one together in Excel, but that’s not nearly as cool as coming up with a way to present quantitative information in the form of icons, pictures, interesting shapes for graphs, etc.  Pair me up with a designated design person!  I bet we could learn a lot from each other.  OR, maybe people regularly involved in presenting data need to be sent to design 101, so we can at least move away from excel and have some basic chops to take our data presentation to the next level.

How does your organization handle data visualization needs?

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