Wrestling our way to data exploration greatness

Last week I met some rock stars of the data visualization world (yes, it’s true, there is such a world) at the Data Visualization Knowledge Summit hosted by Periscopic in Portland. The Summit featured a panel discussion with guest speakers: Alberto Cairo, Professor/Author; Kennedy Elliott, Web Developer, Washington Post; Scott Murray, Author/Coder; and Sarah Slobin, Visual Journalist, Wall Street Journal. Although this was a pretty wide-ranging discussion, they all had in common one thing: a high comfort level with uncertainty (not in the strictly statistical sense, however). That was the most inspiring and comforting thing of all.

Here at NTEN, I often get incredibly frustrated with getting a data set and spending what seems to be eons trying to figure out how to wrestle it into charts and graphs that make sense. But it seems that the ‘wrestling’ is actually a critical step in the process. These folks call it “data exploration.”  And no matter how much experience you have, the data will almost always yield something you didn’t expect.

Of course a good tool for exploration also makes life easier. And because my data exploration has heretofore involved a lot of four letter words, the bleeding ears of my office mates will welcome the entry of Tableau 8.2 into my world. I have yet to see a nicer tool for dragging and dropping my way to data insight. Hooks directly to Google Analytics! No programming needed! Results are pretty! And, for the growing league of data storytellers out there, it actually has ‘Story’ as one of the top menu options. Last, but not least, the Tableau Public version is free.

The key takeaway from the Summit: Don’t zip through the data exploration step, and make sure to build time into the project plan to explore – this is precisely the part of the process that truly yields insight.

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