Why Rio 2016 is both a problem and an opportunity for your data project

The data visualisations that we all see online and on social media are making us more open to using this kind of information at work.

Our daily lives are now drenched in data, delivered to us from our televisions, our computers, and the smartphones in our hands. Charts and tables are commonplace, but the online world and social media have also made infographics a powerful tool for the presentation of this information, especially when coupled with images, animations, video clips and written commentary. This data can come from a huge number and variety of sources, brought in from places all around the world.

A perfect example of this is what we have seen in the coverage of the Rio Olympics. Online news providers have taken great leaps of the imagination in how data can be delivered to us, harnessing the tools at their disposal. The Guardian is a prime example, with their coverage of Great Britain’s cycling success over Australia that saw Sir Bradley Wiggins win his fifth Olympic gold medal (1). The newspaper created an animated version of the race that showed what happened every second of the way, with the reader being able to click through each stage at their own pace.

Not to be left trailing in second place, The New York Times has drawn up an extensive set of data visualisations that shows exactly how well each country has done at each Olympics since the games began (2). The graphics are a brilliant mixture of aesthetics and information, delivering a huge amount of complicated data at a glance.

These high-tech ways of accessing data are becoming everyday experiences for many people, but how does this affect businesses beyond the mass media outlets, and should companies strive to access and make use of these new tools?

There is a danger that if some data analytics projects are at a fairly embryonic stage they could seem outdated by the time they’re implemented. After all, with online trends changing day-by-day, what seemed like a great idea just a few months ago could be old-fashioned by now.

This poses problems for business who are then pushed to keep up with the latest innovations but don’t want to shake-up their operations. However, there is a good chance that your staff are using better, newer technology at home than they have access to when at work.

There are echoes of the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) phenomenon, where the smartphones that people were buying with their own money were far more advanced than the ones they were being given by their employers. BYOD was a clever way of working around this without companies having to regularly shell out for new phones.

Now your staff will be using the data analytics power of social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn in their personal lives, along with gathering data on themselves with mobile apps such as Run Keeper. It is commonplace to have data at our fingertips, and people will be happy to use equivalent tools at work.

It would be very easy for anyone in the position of running a company that is making use of data visualisations to look at the sort of tools that are being used elsewhere and become despondent at what they have at their disposal. Adopting new technologies can be expensive, and many employers could worry that the changes this can bring to a workplace could have a negative effect.

But what needs to be remembered is that any new data technology that is brought in will probably not be unfamiliar to your colleagues, and may be something they are already using in their everyday lives. With so much technology, and so much data, now available to each and every one of us, that new piece of software that you’re apprehensive about buying may not have the disruptive effect on your team’s way of working that you think, and could give a massive boost to your profit margins.

What’s also very important to remember is that data visualisations are only the endgame of a very long process, one that begins with gathering good quality data itself. While new tools designed to present this data are emerging all the time, the basic foundation that they build upon is information. And if you’re looking at new ways of visualising data then you probably have a good bedrock of this information at your disposal already.

There’s an opportunity here, a massive one, that could see your company pushing itself to the forefront of the way in which data is presented and getting everyone involved in its use, not just data scientists and your IT team.

What’s needed to make the most of this is the realisation that the apps, websites and social media that your staff are using on a daily basis are indicative of a wider acceptance among them of how data now works in our world, and how it touches every aspect of our lives. People are now comfortable with digesting huge amounts of information, and even expect it to be delivered to them. If they do this in their own time, they’ll have no trouble doing it at work.



Image provided courtesy of Ian Burt


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