Telling a good data story through visualisation

While the visual element is key, the core strategic component of data visualisation is the ability to unlock the story in the data.

Read time 3min 50sec
Lulekwa Mcwabeni.
Lulekwa Mcwabeni.

Data visualisation has been topical for some time now. In fact, based on my experience, it is still debated across many boardroom tables today, as businesses continue to try and make sense of the available data they have.

Given this, data visualisation is considered a core component within the data and analytics environment, as it assists data specialists to show the immediate value of data, which of course is a useful aspect for any business leader required to turn around accurate decisions, timely.

However, all too often, data visualisation is viewed as just a process of imagination; a tactic for 'prettifying' data into visual elements that can be better understood. While the visual element is key, the core strategic component of data visualisation (and getting the process right to the benefit of the business), is the ability to unlock the story in the data. Otherwise data visualisation adds no real value.

As a result, analytics plays a key role within the data visualisation process and must be driven from the start of any visualisation journey. Through analytics, data becomes instantly more applicable, practical and user-friendly to support the process of identifying the story that needs to be told. In return, the ability to visually present the data then makes this more understandable to the leadership team.

All too often, data visualisation is viewed as just a process of imagination; a tactic for 'prettifying' data into visual elements that can be better understood.

This entire process takes very careful consideration, planning and design, and requires a focus on two areas: asking specific business-related questions to determine what the business wants to see through visualisation, along with expert skills and knowledge to ensure the most appropriate visualisation mechanism is used that will best tell the story to the audience.

When it comes to understanding what the business wants to see, the data visualisation process must focus on the what, when, how and why of the data analysed, to ensure the story being told relates back to what the business needs to see through visualisation. This, however, cannot be achieved without certain expertise.

However, the challenge the industry faces is that people skilled in data visualisation are hard to come by, and it is for this reason, in many instances, business leaders are not seeing the value in the data visualisation process.

Data visualisation requires an analytical skillset, which is usually made up of quantitative background skills, including the ability to find the data, pull it together, analyse it and build applicable models for it. However, it also requires the ability to communicate the analysis effectively, and this is often where the gap lies.

While the background skills may be available on the data side (in some respects), there is often little to no training on the communication requirement, which is what effective data visualisation requires. On the other side of this spectrum, you may see companies invest in the communication side, to ensure the visualisation aspect can be presented in a manner that is easy to 'digest' for the business leadership team. Yet, often this results in an individual producing data visualisation without having the expertise to understand the story they are trying to visually represent. It is often a catch-22 game for business, but one that needs to be figured out if data visualisation is going to add real value.

The positive news is that storytelling and visualisation tools have advanced massively over the years, which supports the process of businesses being able to get the data and analysis right, and produce accurate stories that can then be visually presented to add value to a business's bottom line.

These considerations need to be mapped for the purpose of telling a good data story through visualisation in data and analytics. Not paying attention to these realities will result in a data visualisation process that is likely to add very little benefit.

Utilising advanced visualisation tools can empower businesses to produce well-crafted visualisation views that tell the story succinctly and in a way that is relatable to the business, providing bigger picture thinking and allowing the business to make better decisions, across departments, to achieve improved results.

Lulekwa Mcwabeni

Lulekwa Mcwabeni, independent BI consultant, PBT Group.

Lulekwa Mcwabeni is an independent BI consultant at PBT Group. Within this role, she specialises in delivering solutions in data management, data warehousing, business intelligence, data architecture and data visualisation to the company's clients. Mcwabeni also assists clients in executing their data strategy for the implementation of data analytics systems. She has implemented information management solutions across different organisations, using a wide range of frameworks. Her 20 years' experience in the ICT industry includes banking, telecommunication and petroleum. In addition, she has learned the value of good data quality and data governance on every successful data solution delivery, and has expertise in delivering working solutions with a preference to the shorter time scale using agile methodology. Mcwabeni holds a post-graduate degree in Business Information Systems.

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