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12/8/2006
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Breakthrough Analysis: Make Your Data Tell a Story

Stories frame facts and organize information to bring you to a conclusion; the outcome can be a new way of seeing problems and deciding how to act.

Bruce Silver Seth Grimes

Reports, tables, charts and dashboards all deliver information, but information alone isn't understanding. Show me the numbers and I'll be steps closer to business insight, but to make effective decisions, I need to appreciate context, trends and consequences. Stories can bridge the gap.

Stories take you from a familiar scene to somewhere new. They relate change over time; they deliver ideas and supporting arguments; they attempt to convince you, to advance your thinking. Stories frame facts and organize information to bring you, step by step, to a conclusion the storyteller intended you to reach all along. It doesn't have to be a particular conclusion; the outcome can be a new way of seeing problems and deciding how to act.

You'd expect well-funded commercial organizations and research universities to occupy the information-technology vanguard, but in this case it's do-gooders who excel. It helps that they have compelling stories to tell.

Consider the annual "Human Development Report" commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme. UNDP's goal is "connecting countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life." The organization hopes to place people at the center of policy debates formerly framed solely in political and economic terms. Its approach, the use of a variety of quantifiable measures and computable human-development indicators, produces lots of illuminating statistics.

The 2006 report (hdr.undp.org) focuses on the (un)availability of clean water and basic sanitation services worldwide. The New York Times coverage states, "A third of people have no decent place to use the bathroom, and the human cost is great." The annual development reports offer a careful problem presentation in narrative form. UNDP uses charts and graphics effectively and accessibly to complement and enhance the text. But it's a series of accompanying Flash presentations created by Swedish nonprofit Gapminder that really catch your eye.

Visit gapminder.org and view some of the 2005 Human Development Trends presentations. Animations graphically depict change over time using helpful explanatory text. They cleverly use color and symbol shape in addition to two spatial axes to present a total of five data dimensions in the chart. As a user, you control presentation pace and can raise annotations that describe data points. But you're never left to your own devices. The presentation brings you forward and doesn't let you drown in a sea of complicated data.

Consider another of UNDP's important initiatives, the Millennium Project, which tracks worldwide progress toward a set of Millennium Development Goals. The eight goals for the year 2015 break down into 18 quantifiable targets measured by 48 indicators. The 2006 report does a decent job of relaying project progress, but the minimalist text drives you to the underlying data. A Gapminder beta application effectively turns that MDG data into insight.

Gapminder's animations achieve the goal of "making sense of the world by having fun with statistics." Unfortunately, the primary MDG data delivery tool, the MDG Info 2006 application provided by the U.N. Statistics Division, is a usability disaster. Telling a story with data isn't necessarily easy.

Storytelling is a craft, and it has notable business-world practitioners. Prof. Tom Davenport of Babson College wrote that "pretty much everyone interested in knowledge management knows that storytelling can be an effective knowledge-sharing technique, largely because it conveys context, causal relationships and emotional content more effectively than most other modes of communication."

Steve Denning introduced storytelling as a knowledge-management tool at the World Bank in the late 1990s. He explains that nothing else worked: "I showed them charts and they just looked dazed." Denning aspired to nothing less than organizational transformation, using story-centric KM to create a common knowledge framework that would drive bank decision-making.

Even if you have less ambitious aims, the lesson applies. Stories are effective in communicating meaning locked in data. So show me the numbers, but do it in a way that will bridge the insight gap. Use an age-old approach: Tell me a story.

Seth Grimes is a principal of Alta Plana Corp., a Washington-based consultancy specializing in large-scale analytic computing systems. Write to him at grimes@altaplana.com.

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