As analytics advances into more areas of our everyday life there is an increased need to understand just what it is that analytics is accomplishing for us. I find there is a quicker acceptance of an analytical solution and even excitement if there is a good conceptual understanding of what the analytics is achieving for us — there is a conversation that we need to have with ourselves and others and it really isn’t a technical conversation. I believe too often those doing the analytics fail to explain the overall concepts of what is to be done with the analytics: in broad terms, what is the grand conceptualization of the work? It is understandable. Analysts are not the first to struggle with the issue of being too close to a problem and having trouble seeing it as an outsider would – and experience the resulting issues in explaining it. In applications, I believe the grand conceptualization of the work can be stated as helping us determine what we should be focused on – in other words, “what is it that we need to see?”
In my course on Explaining Analytics, I endeavor to help analysts fully appreciate what they are accomplishing for others. A greater appreciation of this accomplishment can enhance our efforts to share our vision with others. Being an analyst myself, I may be guilty of thinking too highly of our efforts, but when we consider analytics next to the accomplishments of a (rightly) glorified field, perhaps not.
In my previous blog post I talked about analytics as a craft. Approaching the field as a craft connects us to a greater appreciation of the skills we learn. The term for this? Craftsmanship. I truly believe that treating the field as a craft to be continuously learned and refined makes for a more rewarding career. I ended that discussion with a quote from Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” I believe what an accomplished analyst does is an art form. Let me explain.
Consider the progression of painting from the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, the “Dutch Masters,” to the later masters of impressionism. The most famous paintings of the Dutch Master style were produced by Rembrandt van Rijn, including his most famous work, the massive Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq known as the “Night Watch.” The stunning efforts to capture details can be seen in this style. To highlight one example, the careful reviewer can see that individual threads in the garments are rendered perfectly. Following the rules of this approach, the Dutch Masters also produced stunning still lifes showing the bounty of the table or the spectacular tulips produced during that time, again in great detail.
Another Dutch Master, Frans Hals, painted in this style. But he tended to stray from the rules, desiring to be more expressive. Over time, he seemed to embrace this expressiveness more. Late in his life, Hals produced a work that was controversial. Some thought he had lost his technique. In Regents of the Old Men’s Alms House, known as ‘Oude mannenhuis’ (en: Old Men’s Almshouse), produced around 1664, Hals broke an important rule, using what is often referred to as loose brush strokes. Shockingly you can clearly see his brush strokes and the layers of paint instead of the details. This is particularly evident on the white sleeves of the men in the painting. Studying these sleeves, it is true one cannot see the threads in the fabric, but through the shading and layering of the paint clear indications of folds and the texture of the fabric are apparent. All is captured by painting less.
The Old Men’s Almhouse, in particular, and Hals’ work in general was studied by and was an inspiration for a later group of painters – the Impressionists. Further moving from detail, they produced very lively works using only an impression of the life on display. Two specific works by Auguste Renoir demonstrate this distinctly. In Luncheon of the Boating Party and Dance at The Moulin De La Galette Renoir paints a dramatic amount of detail while not exactly painting the detail. In these paintings, the viewer opens their other senses “seeing” more than what is visually there on the canvas. The summer warmth is apparent in both. Additionally, the sounds of conversation are apparent in the Luncheon, whereas in the Dance the music and the soft breeze under the shade are clear. It is practically impossible to view these paintings without getting transported into these moments. Clearly, Renoir has painted to give his audience more, not less.
It is in this framework that I believe analytics can be understood as an art form. If you will, we can think of it as learning the structured world of statistics where there are many rules – for good reasons. But understanding these rules, allows us to break away from them, transforming analytics into an art form. Choosing to show some relationships (but not others), choosing a data domain or region of the data, hiding noise to reveal more clarity to our audience, all these allow our audience to see more in the data – what we want them to see and to help them see more. Our goal is to let the audience see a full complexity of a situation, but to do it by showing some simpler (but not simplistic) view.
So, to repeat Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Conceptually understand your meaningful accomplishment, and when it comes to presenting your findings to others, have pride and treat it like the art form it is.
To learn more about my course, Explaining Analytics, check out the video below?