Interview

Are you secretly afraid of data?

By Molly Flatt 24 November 2015
Summary

Molly Flatt navigates the often-misunderstood world of big data.

Big data is big news.

From mobile apps giving farmers in developing countries access to the latest information on weather patterns to fashion brands using algorithms to predict next season’s hot styles, the mountain of global data now available to mine is, in the words of ex-Vertica CEO Chris Lynch, “at the foundation of all of the megatrends that are happening today, from social to mobile to the cloud to gaming.”

However, big data can also inspire big fear.

Despite living in an increasingly data-driven world, few of us are truly data literate. We might boast about our FitBit graphs and retweet sexy infographics, but most of us are as loathe to admit that we’re scared of the underlying numbers as we are to confess the fact that we can’t code.

We’re well aware that we’re brontosauruses in an asteroid-littered world. The International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts that in 2020 the world will generate 50 times the volume of data as it did in 2011. But whether you’re a business leader struggling to make sense of your company’s epic database, a politician trying to identify how crowdsourced feedback can influence city design, or a consumer wanting to understand how your personal information is being exploited by corporations online, demystifying data can feel like a daunting task.

Step up Trina Chiasson, a self-confessed ‘tech and data viz nerd’ who has made it her mission to convert intransigent data-phobes into spreadsheet-savvy ninjas.

“Knowing how to use data is becoming a basic job expectation in many industries,” Chiasson tells The Memo during a whirlwind European tour to promote Vizable, the new app from business analytics firm Tableau. “Regardless of whether or not you took a stats class in school, it’s important to understand a bit about data if you want to understand today’s social and economic landscape. Unfortunately, most technical content about data, statistics, and visualisation is presented in a language and tone that feels inaccessible to ordinary people.”

One problem, she believes, is the spurious division we make between ‘creative’ and ‘analytical’ brains. “Creative types often develop an identity or belief that they can’t do maths. They say, ‘My brain doesn’t work that way.’ This is a common cultural narrative.”

Another lies in the often-unacknowledged clash between the worlds of data and design. “A lot of data visualisation work is assigned to graphic designers because it uses concepts such as colour, shape, and typography. However, given that most designers haven’t had formal training in math, statistics, or visualisation science, they don’t always know the best ways to represent data in a visual form.”

Instead of complaining about how many terrible graphs exist in the world, Chiasson became “passionate about designing products and learning resources that could break through barriers and give self-identified ‘non-technical’ people a comfortable space to learn.”

Her first such resource was  Data + Design, a popular free ebook aimed at “non-geeks”. But when her startup, InfoActive, was acquired by Tableau, Chiasson was only too eager to join the team working on Vizable, “the first ever iPad app to create beautiful visualisations out of boring spreadsheets”.

“I want Vizable to inspire ordinary people to ask deeper questions of their data,” she enthuses (the app is free and available now).

“That might even start with finding out what kinds of data are available in the first place. For example, you might not know that many banks let you download a CSV of your financial history, or that you can grab data about your social media activity, or find public government data that can help you better understand your community. I hope that people can use Vizable to learn what types of questions are possible to ask, and begin to uncover answers that they didn’t know they could find.”

She believes that Vizable’s “tactile new physical language” will help mitigate data fear.  “One of the concepts that many people struggle with is the difference between transaction-level data and aggregated data,” she explains.

“So Vizable has a pinch gesture that uses animation to help show how it works. When you pinch out to add a new categorical column, Vizable uses an animation to split the existing bars. As the bar is splitting apart, the size of each piece remains proportional to the eventual outcome. If you pinch in to remove the column, Vizable will stitch the component parts back together again so you can see how the numbers were aggregated. I use that gesture over and over again, even when no one’s looking. I think it’s incredibly cool.”

Chiasson is highly optimistic about the potential such products have to boost mainstream data literacy. “There’s so much activity and innovation in this field right now. So many people who all have unique approaches solving a range of different data problems, from data parsing and semantics to statistical analysis.”

For now, however, she’s hungry for feedback. So, fellow quaking dinosaurs, it’s time to come out from behind the safety of your in-house number-crunchers – and go play.