Business data: 2D or 3D?

One debate in data visualisation can be found in the deployment of 2D or 3D charts. Here is an interesting assessment here, conducted by Alasdair Aitchison, and it is well worth a read.
3D visualisations are good for certain types of data e.g. spatial data. One good example of 3D in Spatial analysis is given by Lie, Kehrer and Hauser (2009) who provide visualisations of Hurricane Isabel. 3D has also been shown to be extremely useful for medical visualisation, and there are many examples of this application. One example for many parents is a simple, everyday miracle: anyone who has known the experience of seeing their unborn child on a screen will be able to tell you of the utter joy of seeing their healthy child grow in the womb via the magic of medical imaging technology. Another example of this work has been conducted in cancer studies, where the researchers have visualised tumours in order to detect brain tumours (Islam and Alias, 2010). 
For me, data visualisation is all about trying to get the message of the data out to as many people as possible. Think John Stuart Mill’s principle of utilitarianism – the maximum happiness to the most amount of people. In data visualisation, similar applies; we can make people happy if they get at their data. However, for the ‘lay public’ and for business users, 3D isn’t good for business data because people just don’t always ‘get’ it easily. Note that medical staff do undertake intensive training in order to assess scans and 3D images, and this subset is excluded from the current discussion, as is spatial data. Hopefully, by restricting the ‘set’ of users to business users, the argument goes from the general to the specific, where it is easier to clarify and give firmer answers to the ‘grey’ subject of data visualisation.
Data Visualisation is not about what or how you see; it’s ‘other-centric’. It’s about getting inside the head of the audience and understanding how to help them see the message best. It is often difficult to judge what business users – or people in general – will find easiest to understand. It is also difficult to ascertain what visualisations can best support a given task. Ultimately, I like to stick to the best practices in order to try and answer the data visualisation question as well as possible and to make things as clear for everyone as possible.
Part of my passion for data visualisation comes from personal experience; I was told when I was quite young that I was going blind in one eye. Fortunately, this proved not to be the case, and I can see with two eyes. When my son was born, I saw him with two eyes, and for that I am extremely grateful. Having been through the experience of learning that I may go through life with impaired vision, I have been blessed to understand how precious our vision is, and to try and do something positive for others who have struggled with their vision. This experience has made me passionate about trying to make things as clear for everyone else as possible, so I guess the personal experience has made me so passionate about making data visualisation accessible to everyone, as far as possible.
One particularly relevant issue in data visualisation is the  debate over 2D over 3D – namely, whether to use 3D in data visualisation or not. Here, I specifically refer to the visualisation of business data, not Infographics. 
On one hand, 3D can make a chart or dashboard look ‘pretty’ and interesting. In today’s world, where we are bombarded with images and advanced graphical displays, we are accustomed to expecting ‘more’ in terms of display. We do live in a 3D world, and our visual systems are tuned to perceive the shapes of a 3D environment (Ware, 2004). 
The issue comes when we try to project 3D onto a 2D surface; we are trying to add an additional plane onto a 2D surface. This is a key issue in data visualisation, since we are essentially trying to represent high-dimensional entities onto a two-dimensional display, whether it is a screen or paper. 
Generally speaking, 3D takes longer for people to assimilate than 2D graphs, and they are more difficult to understand. Not everyone has good eyesight or good innate numerical ability, and its’ about getting the ‘reach’ of the data to as many people as possible without hindering or patronising. Perceptually, 2D is the simplest option, and the occlusion of data points is not an issue. Business users are also often more familiar with this type of rendering and it is the ‘lowest common denominator’ in making the data approachable to the most number of people. 
On the other hand, there is some evidence to suggest 3D graphs can, on occasion, be more memorable initially, but this isn’t any good if the data wasn’t understood properly in the first place. It can also be more difficult to represent labels and textual information about the graph. 
In terms of business data, however, 3D Graphs can break ‘best practice’ on a number of issues:
 – Efficiency. Numbering is inefficient since it can be difficult to compare. “Comparison is the beating heart of analysis” (Few) In other words, we should be trying to help users to get at their data in a way that facilitates comparison. If comparison isn’t facilitated, then this can make it more difficult for the users to understand the message of the data quickly and easily.
 – Meaningful. A graph should require minimum explanation. If users take longer to read it, and it increases cognitive load, then it can be difficult to draw meaningful conclusions. The introduction of 3D can mean chartjunk, which artificially crowds the ‘scene’ without adding any value. If you crowd the ‘scene’, then this can naturally distract rather than inform.
 – Truthful. The data can be distorted; occluding bars are just one example. If the labels are not correctly aligned or have labels missing, this can also make the 3D chart difficult to read.
 – Aesthetics. It can make the graph look pretty but there are other ways to do this which don’t distract or occlude.
Stephen Few has released a lot of information about 3D and I suggest that you head over to his site and take a look. Alternatively, I can recommend his book entitled ‘Now you See it‘ for a deeper reading since it describes these topics in more detail, along with beautiful illustrations to allow you to ‘see’ for yourself.
To summarise, what should people do – use 2d only? Here is the framework of a strategy towards a decision:
 – Look at the data. The data might be astrophysics data, in which the location of the stars, and its type, could be identified by colour and brightness as well as location. If the data is best suited to 3D, such as spatial, astrophysics or medical data, then that’s the right thing to do. If the data is business data, where it is important to get the ‘main point’ across as clearly and simply as possible, then 2D is best since it reduces the likelihood of misunderstandings in the audience. Remember that not everyone will be as blessed with good sight or high numerical ability as you are!
Look at the audience. 3D can be useful if the audience are familiar with the data. I had a look at Alastair’s 3D chart and I have to say that I am not sure what the chart is supposed to show, probably because I’m not clear on the data. I am not an expert in spatial data, so I don’t ‘get’ it. So I ask for Alastair’s understanding in my perspective that I don’t understand the spatial data in his blog, so I will be glad to defer to his judgement in this area (no pun intended). If you can’t assume that the viewers are familiar with the data, then it’s probably common sense to make it as simple as possible.
 – Look at the Vendors. Some vendors, e.g. Tableau, do not offer 3D visualisations at all, and bravely take the ‘hit’ from customers, saying that they are sticking to best practice visualisations and that’s the second, third, fourth, fifth and final opinion on the matter. 
In terms of multi-dimensional data representation, there are different methodologies in place to display business data that don’t require 3D, such as parallel co-ordinates, RadViz, lattice charts, sploms, scattergrams. I have some examples on this blog and will produce more over time. Further, it is also possible to filter and ‘slice’ the data in order to focus it towards the business question at hand, so that it is easier for business users to understand. 
I hope that SQL Server Denali Project Crescent will help business users to produce beautiful, effective and truthful representations of business data. I believe that business users will eventually start doing data visualisations ‘by default’ because it is inbuilt to the technology that they are using. Think of sparklines, which are now availabe in Excel 2010 – this was exciting stuff for me! Hopefully Project Crescent will go down this route towards excellent data visualisation but I recognise it will take time.
To summarise, the way around the ‘3D or not to 3D’ in business data is to offer such beautiful, effective, truthful visualisations of business users’ data that adding 3D wouldn’t add anything more to them. The focus here has been on business users, since that’s where my experience lies; there are plenty of good examples of 3D in spatial, astrophysics and medical imaging, but my focus is on business users . 
To conclude, my concern is to get the message of the data is clearly put across to the maximum number of people – think John Stuart Mill again!

PowerPivot Denali – Upgrading from SQL Server 2008 R2 and KPIs

This blog is part of a series in which I will share my experiences in the move from PowerPivot in SQL Server 2008 R2 to SQL Server ‘Denali’.  As always, your comments are welcome! In this segment, I will explore the upgrade itself, and some new functionality in PowerPivot – the creation of KPIs.
The Upgrade
The upgrade from SQL Server 2008 R2 to PowerPivot ‘Denali’ couldn’t be easier. The upgrade was simply a matter of taking a copy of my Excel file with PowerPivot, and opening it in PowerPivot Denali. When the *.xlsx file is opened in Denali, the following prompt appears:

1. Initial Upgrade from previous PowerPivot

To upgrade, click ‘Ok’ This was straightforward; there was a little bar at the bottom right hand side of the screen. The only tiny criticism, I’d say, is that the progress of the upgrade wasn’t immediately clear to me, and I wasn’t sure if it had correctly upgraded or not until I saw all of the PowerPivot buttons fully appear in the ribbon. If I could change things at this point, it would be to provide ‘in your face’ feedback that the upgrade was in progress, and successful.
Once the upgrade is completed, PowerPivot fans are in for a real treat!  The interface looks crisp and there is new functionality to be explored. Next, we will look at the creation of KPIs, which is very simple.
KPIs in PowerPivot Denali
This section will focus on a very simple creation of a KPI using PowerPivot Denali.  The KPI will take the value of Order Margin Percent. The data source is the AdventureWorks Denali Data Warehouse, which can be downloaded from Codeplex here.
Essentially the KPI takes the Order Margin, and calculates its percentage of the whole Sales Amount. Here is a closer look at the actual measure here:

2. Check RELATED formula with green ball

To create a KPI is very simple in PowerPivot Denali; there are two ways:
a. click on the Measure and select ‘Create KPI’ in the ribbon
b. right-click on the Measure and select ‘Create KPI’ in the pop up menu.
Here, we will create a KPI business rule quite simply says:
If the Percentage is less than 41%, then it is a ‘red’ KPI, meaning that the status is critical: (red)
If the Percentage is equal to or greater than 41% but less than 86%, then the status is warning: (yellow)
If the Percentage is equal to or greater than 86%, then the status is successful: (green)
This is implemented in the graphic below:

6. PowerPivot Denali Configure KPI Volume

Note that the ‘Absolute Value’ is set to 1, not 100; and the percentages are specified in the decimals rather than as percentage values. Hopefully users won’t get confused, since if the percentages are specified rather than the decimal values, then they might wonder why their KPI value is not working.

If we choose the red-yellow-green ‘traffic symbols’ then our report appears as follows. If it is hard to read, please do click on the image to go to my flickr blog.

7. PowerPivot Denali End Result

Creating KPIs in PowerPivot is extremely easy to do, and I achieved some impactful results in just a few steps. It didn’t require any typing so if you are most comfortable with directly interacting  with the interface to produce the KPI, then this is the tool for you.

The other side of the coin is that, as readers of the blog will know, I’m not a fan of red-yellow-green since colour blind people have issues in seeing these colours. It is also possible that people with strong shortsighted prescriptions in their glasses can have a ‘rainbow’ like prism effect if they look at an image off-axis. This is known as chromatic aberration, and is a result of a prismatic separation of colours, which appears as a prism of strongly-contrasting colours.  As the individual moves their head, the prismatic effect of the colours can change, which can distort the image.
This is the basis of the Duochrome test, which uses chromatic aberration to identify short-sightedness. Most people are familiar with this: here is an example:


Here are some generalisations – there will always be specific cases that break the generalities! Generally speaking, very short sighted people will see the red image more clearly, and if the eye is corrected properly, then both lines appear equally sharp. In short sighted people, the axial length can be longer, which means that the light does not focus on the retina; thus short sighted people can be more impacted by focal length of the blue light. 
Hence the red-green debate has some basis in the ways in which our eyes work. I understand that PowerPivot KPIs are still in ‘early visibility’ stage to everyone, but I have my fingers crossed that the KPIs will be able to be amended. Here is another version that I could do with the existing functionality. If it is difficult to see, please click on the image to go to my flickr account:

8. PowerPivot Denali End Result

In this example, I have tried to go with the ‘longer length equals higher value’ approach, and not used any colour to distinguish the KPI statuses. Ideally, I would like to make these icons go ‘left to right’ in order to facilitate comparison between the Years or Row Labels. I would also be able to choose red-blue colours to distinguish between statuses properly. Let’s see what happens!

In my next post, I will be covering more new PowerPivot features in Denali. In the meantime, I look forward to your comments.

Want to join the team? Sharepoint/BI Administrator Required!

At Copper Blue, we are currently recruiting for a Sharepoint/BI Administrator. The role involves helping to set up and maintain a greenfield Sharepoint/Business Intelligence solution in the Nottingham area. This role would suit someone with a year’s Sharepoint experience, who would like to also learn about the Business Intelligence and deeper SQL Server aspects of Sharepoint.

The successful individual will need at least one year’s Administrative experience for Sharepoint. Additionally, the individual would ideally have an interest in following the Microsoft certification path for Sharepoint since they will be supported through this process.

We’re expecting interest in Business Intelligence since the individual will need to help write and publish Business Intelligence reports in Sharepoint e.g. Excel Services, Reporting Services. The integration of data is very important for this role so we are looking for someone with a basic understanding of SSIS and the importance of data quality. Training will be provided to get you to the next level.

If you’re interested, please send your CV through to and we will look forward to speaking with you.

MVP Award: Thank you Microsoft and the SQL Server Community

I am delighted and overwhelmed to announce that Microsoft have given me the gift of ‘Most Valuable Professional‘ Award. If you are reading this blog, it’s because I have wanted to say ‘thank you’ to you, in a way that’s communicates more than a 140 character tweet 🙂 If you don’t know what an MVP is, my thoughts on this follow directly, and I look forward to your opinions.
I am overwhelmed by the kind responses from the SQL Server community. I wanted to say how grateful I am for the welcome that the SQL Server community, right from the start. I have commented previously about the SQL Server community being a great community, because of the ‘helping hand’ we all give one another. The number of good wishes by tweets, emails, phone and text messages have been testament to that, and I’m delighted to be part of this community.

What is an MVP? In my opinion, the MVP Award is, for me, a focus on ‘other’ people – helping people in the community, and helping individuals at Microsoft to be clear about users’ opinions. In my opinion, the MVP isn’t a career ‘goal’, which necessarily focuses on the ‘self’ rather than others. 
In my opinion, being an MVP is a focus on helping members of the community. For example, assistance can be offered either directly by offering advice and technical expertise via blogs, speaking, twitter, forums for example. It can also be done by taking customer and user perspectives back to Microsoft, and ensuring that the users’ voices are ‘heard’ in the direction of the Microsoft product range. I will be interested in other people’s thoughts on this, and please do leave feedback on my site. 
Since we are a community, the MVP Award isn’t a sole achievement. So here are a few examples:
 – Thank you to the SQLBits team for allowing me the opportunity to speak. If you are debating over whether to submit a session – please do. You won’t be sorry. Being part of the SQLBits community has given me many friends, and speaking has meant that I can reach out to people.
 – Thank you to the SQLPass team for giving me the opportunity to do the SQLPASS 24 hour hop webinar. Again, it brought me in touch with many people in the community, and gave me the experience of doing a webinar.

 – Thank you to Microsoft for offering the MVP Award program – for me, it shows their interest and emphasis in community, and in what users’ think. 

 – Now it’s ‘big lump in throat’ time – I have to thank the many people I’ve met in the community at User Groups, community events and whom I’ve met remotely over twitter. There are too many to mention. Some of my best friends are in the community – I hope they know who they are!
I am looking forward to contributing to the Microsoft community now and in the future. I’ve had a fantastic time being part of the community, and look forward to even more!