Great Communication

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The Art of Communication...or communicating in art.

On this morning’s Breakfast Show, Kevin Keegan told Chris Evans that he thought Jurgen Klopp was right up there with the best Liverpool managers of all time because –  He has Passion!… for the club, the sport, the players and he communicates it:

“Communicating with the fans, not giving cryptic clues out, … he talks a language they can understand.”

This made ultimate sense to me, that by being able to communicate with Liverpool supporters, he had their backing and as Chris said, “If you have the city, the jobs half done”

This made me think of a chat I had with a friend of mine who works in education. We were discussing how our hard working teachers and support workers often go above and beyond their job role. This is partly because they are working directly with and for people whose outcomes are affected by what they do,(the same can be said for many people working on the front line) but for her it is also directly affected by the way her manager communicated the need for and ultimately their appreciation of a job well done. She is prepared to go those steps further because the way she is asked and because she knows it doesn’t go unnoticed.

I think, across the board, great communication is the key to success.

There are so many options out there to “make you a better communicator” web sites, personal development courses, blogs, self help books. People understand how important it is to success in our relationships, personal and business.  Specialists also need this skill.

Good data analysts are great if they are able to interpret the patterns they see to others. They communicate the trends and comparisons to the people that need to know, in a language they understand. There are many things in an analysts toolbox to help in this task; narrative, charts, graphs, maps, tables.

Images are the ultimate communication, whether presenting big data trends and comparisons, informing people of change, getting your team on board with a new direction or presenting a complex system. We all use them; coaches draw formations on whiteboards, friends scribble maps of directions, teachers draw pretend cakes to explain fractions, we show pictures to children learning to read and follow the steps of diagrams on furniture assembly instructions. We communicate daily using infographics, even more so in the world of smart phones when text messages can be simplified by an emoji and most apps get around a lack of space by using images. 😉

The Language of Infographics

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A highly skilled data analyst once said to me:

“I don’t get infographics, I don’t see the point, why are we using them?”

I can understand why she felt like that, she knew that data inside out, could identify unusual trends, and was so fluent in the norm she was able to recognise outliers and exceptions. Her audience were also familiar with the information, they had been reporting and reviewing it for years. For her, nothing else was needed. I however, had been ask to contemplate how we would deliver the story to a wider audience, one not familiar with the subject.

Trying to explain, I can refer back to a situation that happened to me a few months ago. Stood in front of a ticket machine in Frankfurt train station, on my way to get my flight home, I had the machine set to English as my German is not strong, but I realised that this didn’t change the station names. In a rush and a bit of a panic I tried to remember what the German for airport was so that I could type it into the search. Snatching a look at the departures board I see my salvation, not the name but that little plane next to it, announcing clearly the name of my sought after destination.

Not being fluent in the language, I needed the graphic.

Just like it’s difficult to teach someone how to do a job you do every day, understanding how to explain a data set you are fluent in, to someone who isn’t, can be challenging.

You need to step outside of your knowledge to breakdown the story for a different audience, sometimes an unknown audience. You have to see it from their perspective.

Just like Denzel Washington in the film Philadelphia saying,

“Explain this to me like I’m a two year old ok, ‘cause there’s an element to this thing that I just can’t get through my thick head”

His character (a lawyer) knows that his client and his client’s bosses (also lawyers) need to give evidence in a way that a jury will understand, cutting out the “lawyerspeak”. He makes them think about how they communicate the information.

Interestingly, speaking to a lawyer the other day, I found out that one of the most useful tools during trials are infographics (trial or litigation graphics). They are used not just to present the information but to tell the story, engaging people and making them, not just see the data but care about it.

This is why we use the language of infographics.

Cracking Data

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This week I was watching a news report looking at how the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) were using Artificial Intelligence to analyse documents in complex cases. AI cuts down the huge amount of time it would normally take the SFO to analyse the vast amount of information collected for cases. What struck me was their demonstrations of the output. After the system had worked through the data (sometimes 10’s of millions of documents), the interface officers have to review the findings is an infographic. A stringed bubble comparison in fact, which is then used to identify interesting relationships and patterns in communication.

Obviously that in itself makes me happy, that the best way to analyse, make sense of, “see” the data is an infographic. That actually the work the AI is doing is essentially presenting the data in a different way so that we understand it better. Technology now means that infographics are no longer an end product, a presentation tool to show findings, but also the tool we use to actually analyse the data. We can manipulate the graphics to pull out key findings and use them to answer questions.

Going further, what was going to be a YAY INFORGRAPHICS! blog has developed into something even better…

It was obvious to me that the human input to the situation was essential. Initially telling the system what was interesting and needed to be highlighted and then to analyse the output, using the graphic to identify what was pertinent to the case. It was the officers knowledge and understanding of the subject which allowed them to make sense of all that information, however it was presented. You cannot get anyone or anything to answer a ‘so what’ question if they don’t have an understanding of the situation. Data Science is not just crunching numbers, its about knowing what evidence to layer up together, what extra information to have and trying to anticipate what questions will need answering.

I think collaboration is the key. Knowing who the specialists are, communicating and working with them to collect and paint as detailed pictures as possible.

Data is its own peculiar language and analysts, what ever their titles, are interpreters.

To be or not to be…

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What is the data question?

I do data… I’ve been working with data in one way or an other for a huge part of my life. Whether in a small accounts team, collecting and reporting basic figures back into the business, as part of a large business intelligence team, providing large swathes of external information to guide large policy decisions or as the numbers focused partner in my marriage, feeding the “data” into family decisions.

As data people we often find ourselves piggy in the middle.

Our job is to provide the answers that the decision makers need to make the right choices to move things forward and we need the collected information to be comprehensive, correct, accurate and appropriate. To ensure this we get the data collectors on side, making sure they have understanding of what it’s all for. We are a sort of Collectors-Decision Makers, Decision Makers-Collectors dictionary as it were.

We have to work out what the question is

I often liken it to the proverbial “What would you like to drink” question. You need some sort of hint of what is on offer before you try and venture an answer. As a reserved Brit I like an indication whether the host is thinking manic session or cosy cuppa before I ask for a large gin…sorry I meant tea!

Getting the right data collected from the beginning is key. I cannot count the number of times the task of evaluating a project has been scuppered because you have been asked to answer things at the end that weren’t asked at the beginning. Of course there is always going to be a certain amount of questions inspired by some initial analysis, prompting further work.

(What do you want? What have you got? Tea, Coffee, Juice, Water…Oh one of those nights, I’ll have tea please, do you have Earl Gray?!…)

Scoping these things early is becoming even more important, with the introduction of GDPR, it will not be possible to just pull something together at the end. We need to show that there is a plan, and that we have communicated it.

So this is the challenge:

  • Get Information involved at the beginning, not the end
  • Work out the range of questions that we want to answer and have a think of what might be asked further along the line.
  • Ensure all parties know/understand what we are doing and why. Including collectors and the source.

No small feat then…”tea” anyone?

Historical Infographics

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I have spent a pleasant half hour this morning, talking to my youngest daughter about infographics. It all stemmed from the statement “Our topic is Victorians, we are doing Victorians in everything but Maths!”

Hmmm, how would I put the Victorians into maths?

Of course for me the answer is easy…

“Did you know the Victorians were the first to properly use infographics?”

Yes, people have been using images as communication since man painted on cave walls but the Victorians started creating and using complex data visualisations to understand things and make decisions.

Of course M is not happy with just this statement, her amazing, enquiring mind has all sorts of questions, ones which I have the answers to for once. She wants to know the who, what, when and why, and can I please tell her by 7.50 when she leaves for school.

So I start with one of my favourites, Dr John Snow’s map of cholera deaths and public wells in Soho, London in 1854.

The presentation of the data in a map assisted in the identification of the well in Broad Street, which was the cause of a cholera outbreak.

I love how, as part of a large research piece, the map was instrumental in allowing us to see the data and ultimately take action to stop the spread of disease.

I love a good map.

I then tapped into her current knowledge of the era…

“Florence Nightingale used infographics to influence Queen Victoria and her government to make improvements in the health of the British army. She invented the polar chart as we know it, she called it a coxcomb diagram.”

The Victorian age with its collection of information, pursuit of knowledge and the passion for education fit perfectly with infographics. Their world was changing so fast, they had so much new information, of course they would use images as a way of presenting it to a wider audience…

…just like we do now. Big data anyone?

Anyway, M shot off to school, happy she now had new information on her topic to bring to the class. Not sure how happy the teachers will be, considering they have more than enough to do, preparing our precious and precocious small people for the big wide world and of course the dreaded SATS, but I am pleased that M can now associate something that happened then with what I do on a daily basis.

Why Infographics?

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Recently I have read a large number of articles about why we should use infographics and many of them suffered from a major problem… A lot of words to explain why graphics should be used , most of them missing the wonderful graphics they were waxing lyrical about. I also have a lot of words to say on the issue but here I hope to redress the balance with some illustrative graphics.

Process Quicker

Our brains are quicker to gain information from a picture than from text showing the same thing

Click Engagement

Images generate more “likes” and “shares” than text.

Provoke a Response

A clear data visualisation can help people understand and care about the information.

Universal Images

An image is universal, it doesn’t need translating.

Cut Words, Paste Pictures

“A picture paints a thousand words”, to try and describe an image takes paragraphs.

Process Quicker

There is a figure floating around the internet that states that the brain processes images a huge amount faster than text.

As an analyst I will not perpetuate this mythical number by quoting it, currently it is unverified, however if someone can point me at the appropriate scientific study , I would be happy to make changes to this blog to reflect the facts.

Anyway, even without an exact figure, I know that often our brains are quicker to gain information from a picture than from text that is showing the same thing, especially if that information has several layers.

Haig Kouyoumdjian Ph.D. writing for Psychology Today states that;

“A large body of research indicates that visual cues help us to better retrieve and remember information. The research outcomes on visual learning make complete sense when you consider that our brain is mainly an image processor (much of our sensory cortex is devoted to vision), not a word processor. In fact, the part of the brain used to process words is quite small in comparison to the part that processes visual images.”

To me it makes sense, it’s why organisations have logos, children’s books have illustrations and signs have icons.

According to a teaching paper posted on the Social Science Research Network, 65% of people are visual learners and need to be able to see things to take them on board. New and different information is easier to remember when it is presented visually, rather than in text format.

If you want people to understand and remember your message, USE A GRAPHIC

The brain takes time to process text…an image is understood quicker

Click Engagement

When you see a web page with paragraphs of text with no pictures, what are the chances you’ll want to sit down to read it? I know I wouldn’t. With so many articles on the news feed to pull my focus I find it’s often the picture that makes me click to see more.

Apparently photos on Facebook generate more “likes” and “shares” than text, video or links. So it doesn’t surprise me that HubSpot’s social-media scientist Dan Zarrella found tweets with images are 94% more likely to be retweeted than tweets without.

Provoke A Response

Pictures leave impressions much faster and much more accurately than words can. Pictures can invoke feelings of happiness, sadness and many others. Do you want to associate a positive feeling with the product you’re selling, the outcomes you are achieving? Then insert a graphic that demonstrates your point!

I think they can also reduce an unwanted terror reaction. A lot of people I know claim “I don’t do numbers” and can be put off if things seem too mathy. A simple, clear data visualisation is often enough to calm the flight response and help people understand  and care about the figures.

Universal Images

An image is universal, it doesn’t need translating, and in general, you don’t need too much knowledge to understand it.

The perfect example is the signs that have adorned gender specific bathrooms for a very long time, well as long as I can remember. You know the ones, they come in all shapes and forms but the concept is the same. I have found, in my limited travels around the world, that they are the same in other countries as well. There have been a couple of times though, whilst frequenting a funky bar or restaurant, where they have decided to link these  gender indicating signs into the theme of the establishment. Never have I been more in need to see some of those little people than when trying to work out if I was Pen or a Cob (thank you The Swan Inn) or remembering whether amigos were of the male or female persuasion. Of course all of this was back in a time before we all had smart phones and the ability to google things.

Cut Words, Paste Pictures

“A picture paints a thousand words” and in fact to try and describe an image often takes paragraphs of text, but the best reason to use an infographic is because it can tell the whole story about the data, not just a small part of it. It also makes the information more transparent and understandable.

Infographics can provide context for data by showing relationships, revealing outliers or anomalies, and showing patterns or trends.

That’s not to say all text is bad, as per my previous blog sometimes you need several types of presentation to reach your overall audience. Often people whose attention is captured by a snappy graphic will go on to read the lengthy narrative.

The Presentation Dilemma

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In a world of big data, what comes next? We are swimming in facts and figures, we have mountains of information…So what! There are hackathons, getting brilliant minds to work out what it might show, plugging the piles of facts into applications to “make lives easier”.  Analysts trawl through, trying to discover trends, show movement and pass on intelligence. The ultimate goal is informed decisions, an organisation moving in directions influenced by knowledge of what happens when variables change. (oohhh, the mathematician in me squeals with excitement at the thought of this.)

SO what do we do with it, the data, after all the analysing? Well, the apps have it right, they are the interface between the big data and the decision makers. They stick it on maps, timetables, little squares with prices…no matter the data, they sort it, pull out the important bits and PRESENT IT.

We all like our information presented. Scrolling through sheet and sheets of figures is not everyone’s favourite thing (I love it but I’m officially weird) We create tables of indicators, process flowcharts,  maps of data points or polygons of density, paragraphs of analysis narrative, charts and graphs of all shapes and sizes.

For me infographics are data visualisation at its best, showing complex information in an easily digestible format, I love a good picture. Some people only trust data when it’s in a table or feel comfortable when there is comprehensive narrative around it. Some people want a chart or graph, others associate them with maths and switch off. Knowing your audience is great, realising that what you like may not be for everyone, also a good idea. Diversify, multitask, vary your delivery, however it’s put, when the analysis has been done and the story is ready to be told, cover your bases, tell it in different presentation options (or go with infographics, they are the best)

Sometimes an image is the only way to go, when the amount of data is so large there is only one way to get your point across. To stop people thinking of it as data and just see the answer they need, visualise it. Data is not always numbers, sometimes it’s just information. When faced with trying to explain a complex software system in one image to fit on a web page, no scrolling, you need to cut words and paste pictures. Below is the original and then my finished product.

  This is an example that I put together as part of a contest. It illustrates how sometimes the explanation of what is needed comes scribbled on the back of an envelope and it takes some careful work to create an attractive, professional image that tells the story.

The range of options available for presenting information is wide and very much depends on what you want to say and who to. I have been guilty of following a route for an infographic because I thought it would look cool, only to discover once the data was added, that the reality was messy and confusing. I learnt my lesson and now I let the data lead the way, keeping my options open and trying several ways before settling on a final product.

There will always be differing opinions on the best way to digest data and I am always prepared to use all the options that make sense but my main love will always be a clever, clean infographic.

A Wordle of Rememberance

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A picture paints a thousand words and, given the choice, I will always use a picture instead of text. There are certain situations however, where a picture, made up of words, can have great impact. I have created wordles in the past, from summaries of complex strategic documents to  an impression of a marriage proposal as a keepsake. My most recent has been a joy to put together.

Inspired by the Royal British Legion’s 2017 Poppy Appeal, it presents the words of the John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields in the classic emblem of remembrance, used since 1921 to recognise the sacrifices made by the Armed Forces community, past and present, the poppy.

What started as a personal project, something to put up as profile picture around the 11th November has now started to take on a life of its own. I thought, perhaps I could make it a frame, like I’ve used to show my support for causes in the past. After following the simple instructions and with a certain amount of trepidation, I set up my image as a frame and put it out there in the world, mainly so that I, and maybe some of my family could use it. The wonder of the internet and Facebook means I now have people I have never met with my wordle on their profile pictures…well that’s exciting.

Hi & Hello!

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The split personality of data visualisation

Hi, I’m Flic…and hello, I am Felicity

Figures Represented is my brand new, shiny data  visualisation and analysis company. (please bear with me, all will become clear)

As a new business start up I am involving myself in networking events through my Local Enterprise Partnership, meeting representatives from all sorts of sectors; manufacturing, technology, marketing and legal to name just a few. The data nerd in me gets very excited about the possible data streams to be found in these industries and what I could produce if I could get access. (even if she may never have the guts to ask)

At one of these events recently someone asked me what it was like working as a Data Scientist, apparently the role voted Sexiest Job of 2017. Nerd me went an interesting shade of red and stammered a little but then my artistic side, the bit of me that presents training, draws pictures and is very demonstrative in my passion for figures, analysis and helping people understand, pipes up…I LOVE IT! I adore bringing data together in a way that helps people understand it.

Data scientist, analyst, statistician, demographer, profiler, what ever you want to call it, may be the new  “Sexy” but it is, in my opinion, also very misunderstood.

Organisations bring us in to look at the data and tell them what is happening, why and quite often, what is to come. We use the tools to collect, plot and assess the data journey, presenting our findings to people who want/need insight, the answer to SO WHAT?

To answer we also need understanding of the subject, changes in the marketplace, developments of both the product and the people it effects. Using two very diverse skills, analytical testing of figures and overarching strategic intelligence.

Creators of data visualisations and infographics push the need for dual personality a step even further. We take strong analytical capabilities, an understanding of what should and shouldn’t be done with the data and the ability to pull out the data story and add artistic flair, creative ability and a passion for presentation.

I have worked with skilled analysts who couldn’t put a professional picture of their data together and wouldn’t know where to start to explain their findings in an infographic. Graphic artists can create amazing images that add a slickness to your presentations/publications but they don’t always get the data enough (or want to, “ugh numbers!”) to know how to create a data visualisation that tells a clear, reliable story.

It takes someone that can tap into both sides, analytical and artistic to create a really great infographic. One that is clear, concise, shareable, engaging, with credible information that tell the data story without too much fuss. Someone like me.

I’ve always had two sides, the mathematician and the artist, both vying for a place in my life. It was only when I discovered the joy of data visualisation that I finally found my perfect job. As they say, choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life. I feel like that is true, even though, now I work for myself, I have to put that data nerd out of her comfort zone and into the market place. I’m still not sure if I’m comfortable with what I do being referred to as sexy, well not in public anyway, but I really do love it.

Just a small insight into me and what I do but, in my opinion, there are more than enough words on the page for one day. I suppose the next question is why infographics or even what are infographics but I’ll leave those for another time. In the meantime I will continue promoting the ethos Cut Words, Paste Pictures! (really, even after all these words 😊)