Revolutions in Data Analytics

The Independence Day holiday is a good time to talk about revolutions. We are all inundated with stories about big data and analytics revolutionizing how companies use data to run their businesses. As useful and powerful as these tools are turning out to be, the biggest data analysis revolution of all time arguably took place in 1786 when Scottish Engineer William Playfair invented the bar, line and pie chart That is not a typo: We have been using the same tools to visualize data for over 200 years.

Playfair’s goal was to make it quick and easy to understand large amounts of data: “Men of great rank, or active business, can only pay attention to general outlines. And it is hoped, that, with the assistance of these charts, such information will be got, without the fatigue and trouble of studying the particulars of which it is composed.” The blog Seeing Complexity has some examples of Playfair’s charts.

Playfair’s charts have stood the test of time with few challenges to their dominance. PowerPoint and its predecessors have enabled analysts to add colors, shading and three-dimensional aspects to these charts. But these are simple refinements to Playfair’s basic design. Today design experts argue that the elements draped over Playfair’s chart detract more than they add by contributing clutter without additional information or insights. Infographics have added novelty to the visualization of simple data but have not enhanced the amount or type of information conveyed.

The reign of Playfair’s charts looks safe for the foreseeable future. Even in today’s world of unstructured, big data and analytics platforms the insights gained still have to be conveyed to decision-makers in clear easy to understand formats that highlight the big picture without getting bogged down in the details. Data are aggregated and analyzed by state of the art technology, but the executive team is likely looking at the output in a 200 year old chart.