Blog Oct 2019
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Data is the New Bacon

I read this slogan on an office dry erase board last week. Aside from making me want to check the clock to see how far off lunch was, the metaphor rang true. Everybody wants data and you can add good data to nearly anything to make it better. While data as a management tool is far from new, the options for data management and visualization are more accessible than ever. Simultaneously, the need for data to be interpreted and visualized for effective and efficient decision-making is at an all-time high. Much like how your favorite GIF or meme can memorably communicate faster than concise words could otherwise express, good data visualization does this for your reporting.

Data alone doesn’t cut it. It is a prerequisite but having data alone does not make it compelling. Visual presentation is the magic ingredient that can ensure it communicates your specific concept. Author David McCandless says we take in 80% of information from our eyes. Of the five senses sight is the fastest and has the biggest bandwidth. The adage a picture says 1000 words is true. Data visualization done well shares complex information quickly, concisely, and compellingly.

Options to prepare your data for visual presentation are increasing. This is good news but there is no short-cut to display data with meaningful context. Software or an app cannot replace your practical knowledge and observations. You must have a strong understanding of your association’s business, with all of its moving parts. From this understanding, you may speculate the correlations and other relationships between variables as markers for trends or changes. Test your hypothesis by reviewing your data. The data will either support or dispute your query. It is important not to ask the data to write the story for you. Instead, use data to increase how effective and convincing your thought is for the audience. This must be done with transparency and without manipulation.

Data visualization is about presenting your data to emphasize and guide your audience to an informed conclusion.

Do not confuse “big data” with visualizing data. Big data seeks to identify relationships and connections in your data that you have not considered. Visualization is about how best to communicate what you already identified.

Here is a playful example of why you use data to support your ideas and not formulate them blindly. Spurious Correlations, a humorous website, shares correlations with compelling visual data. But it is just quirky chance, unless you really think the divorce rate in Maine drives the per capita consumption of margarine. This example highlights how valuable context is with the knowledge you bring of the association’s data.

Here are a few considerations to avoid that can undermine the use of data:

1.       Correlation is not causation; seek to understand the mechanisms behind your data. If not, you will not understand how even a broken clock is right two times a day!

2.       Learn to separate the signal from the noise

a.       Select your metrics wisely; are you really measuring what you think you are?

b.       More is not always better – a handful of truly relevant data is more meaningful than a mountain of trivial data.

c.       What has the most significance or impact to shape your future decisions? Be mindful of your business objectives and give your focus to data sets that inform you in this realm. It is easy to get distracted by any number of curious data points that have little value to your objectives.

3.       Beware of visual conflicts when presenting data, which can be:

a.       Misleading scales on charts or graphics

b.       Confusing color schemes with no significance

c.       Charts or images that are too busy or distracting

You’ve done your homework, the data confirms the story you want to tell, and you’ve selected the metrics that best communicate your point. What’s next?

Choose a tool to visualize your data so that your point literally jumps off the page to the reader. The options below are free and self-teachable. In addition to their overview and guide, a simple internet search will also offer several tutorials and YouTube support for each of these platforms.

Microsoft Excel

Excel is the most straightforward and has extensive tutorials. Excel is a tremendously power tool which lets you manage your data and display it from one program. No internet connection is required to work in Excel, giving you more options on where to be productive. However, the final graphics can be less visually impressive.

Google Data Studio

It requires you to work in the Google environment. If you prefer Excel, you will have to convert your source file to a Google Sheet first. You must have a Google account, such as Gmail. Like a pivot table, you can add or remove data points from your graphic. There is a large built-in menu of charts and graphs to explore how your data looks in different formats. Your data can be linked to the Google sheet and the charts or graphs update as your data set updates. You can share a final dashboard via a URL, which makes sharing easy. Like other Google products you can simply share access to view the dashboard or also assign editing privileges. Another benefit is that functions which are more advanced to execute in Excel can be performed via the Data Studio drop-and-drag format to build your chart. So, toggling a data series on of off, or using a mouse roll-over function for more detail can be created more intuitively. All work is in the online environment, prohibiting offline creation and updates.

Zoho Analytics

If you are already active in Zoho this may be a great match for you. If not, it is a very capable system with an adequate interface, yet there is some economy in working in familiar systems with commonalities that may speed up your learning curve. This application requires an internet connection.

Tableau Public

This format of Tableau is free, while a more robust version requires payment. Tableau Public, the free version, has the Tableau branding in all display formats. If that is a deal breaker, you will want to look elsewhere. If you can live with their stamp on your work, it offers great built-in charts and graphs and it is a major player in large-scale data.

Weighing the pros and cons to decide which platform is best is personal. Give yourself time to explore and play with sample sets of data and see what you can do. Becoming familiar with the breadth of your association data and cultivating an eye for the aesthetic display of data can increase your value to the team and help ensure well-informed decision-making.

Graham Cox is an Executive Director at McKenna Management, Inc. He has over 15 years of nonprofit experience and excels in the areas of strategy, operations, relationship-building and advocacy. Graham holds a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Colorado and is a graduate of Francis Marion University’s Nonprofit Leadership Institute. He completed ASAE's Certificate in Association Management and is also a Change Management Specialist.