Data is the new soil; get your hands dirty

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SAS Global ForumWhen was the last time an informational graph or chart caught your eye? I mean, really caught your eye in a way that made you want to emblazon it on a greeting card or frame it for your office?

What’s that…never?

Me neither, until I had the opportunity to see some of the striking visuals and graphics by David McCandless and hear about the thought and passion that goes into his work as a data journalist. McCandless, the author of Knowledge is Beautiful, was a keynote speaker at SAS® Global Forum April 21, an event traditionally focused on the more technical and logistical aspects of analyzing data.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was moved by the informative digital images displayed across the conference venue jumbo screens the way some might be moved by a famous painting or sculpture. They revealed depth of understanding and presented analytical findings in such unexpected ways through story, shape, color and connection.

They were beautiful, indeed. But McCandless was quick to point out that it’s important that data visualization transcends aesthetic beauty and aids comprehension

That’s important when you’re faced with billions of numbers and facts. “Images allow us to see something important in a sea of data,” he said. “They tell a story.”

McCandless says the story often lies not in the data points themselves but in the gaps and modulations. “When you visualize data this way, you have a different relationship with it,” he said. “To be able to see it, see the data, helps us understand.”

Many in the analytics world have heard the phrase that data is the new oil, the new fuel to power and motivate business. But McCandless offered a twist on the modern day buzz phrase. “I like to think of data as the new soil,” he said. “Get in and get your hands dirty.” What is revealed could take root and flourish in ways you never imagined.

McCandless also encouraged attendees to give themselves the gift of time and spontaneity when digging into data. “Eject a little play and you may get unexpected results,” he said. He shared visuals created around his own areas of interest, images crafted just for fun, ranging from based-on-truth movies to more than 80 thousand horoscopes. Playing with data is a great way to learn techniques, stretch the imagination, and reveal more memorable ways of sharing business data.

The visual graphics you create may not find a spot above the living room couch, but if they hang in the minds of decision-makers and compel those who rely upon your analysis to change the way they see things, I think McCandless would agree: That is a beautiful thing.

View the full keynote presentation (and catch a glimpse of some of those stunning graphics) on the livestream archive.

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About Author

Becky Graebe

Director, Communications

In addition to traditional employee communication efforts at SAS, Becky Graebe oversees an award-winning global intranet and a variety of enterprise social media channels. Her goal is to create a working environment where SAS employees around the world feel connected and inspired to share fresh ideas, solutions and expertise with colleagues and customers. Having studied at Southern Methodist University and earned her degree from Stetson University, she now serves on the Employee Communications Section board for the National Public Relations Society of America, is an active member of Triangle Women in Communications, and volunteers with Citizen Schools and the Wake County Support Circle Program.

2 Comments

  1. I once used a flower or rose chart I think found somewhere in Excel. The flower pedal size indicates the gap between the data and the outer circle surrounding the flower. It was so different it stood out for my director.

    • Becky Graebe
      Becky Graebe on

      I'm sure it was memorable, Peter. Those images hang in our minds long after the raw numbers fade from memory.

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