Event: Now that’s what I call the worst Data Visualisation in the world… Ever!

At SQL Saturday Cambridge on 8th September, myself and Allan Mitchell will be hosting an event entitled ‘Now that’s what I call the worst Data Visualisation in the world… Ever!’

This will be our lunchtime sponsor slot as Copper Blue Consulting.  Now, we understand that lunchtime sponsor slots at sessions are normally some ‘downtime’ for you to have lunch and text your friends 🙂 We don’t intend to do anything that might bore people, so we thought we’d have some fun instead!

This is the intended format…..

– we will bring along some data visualisations that will make you cringe!
– we will have a debate about what’s wrong with them, and invite your participation…. even if it is just to say ‘Ew!’

How you can participate –

Bring along any bad data visualisations that you find on the Internet. Let’s have a quick review and have some fun!

Caveat: Let’s not bring any data visualisations that you, or a colleague, has done in the workplace. We won’t have anything that belongs to a specific company.

If you want some inspiration, here are some examples of 3D floating, gradient-enhanced pie charts done by no other than the clever people over at Apple.

As a final note, if you’ve registered for SQLSaturday Cambridge 162, and can’t attend, then please be a community sport and de-register to let someone have your place. It’s all karma, and you may well get it back one day!

TechEd North America and TechEd Europe – my speaker preparation, thoughts and my screensaver!

I’m delighted to say that I’m presenting at both TechEd North America, and TechEd Europe in June 2012!  I will be giving my talks on Business Intelligence and Data Visualisation in SQL Server 2012.  I’m looking forward to these events.
It is particularly special for me, since I’d always dreamed of going to TechEd one day, and now I’m attending both conferences as a speaker! This is a dream come true for me. I’m flying out to Orlando, back for one week, and then heading out to Amsterdam.
There is a real sense of occasion in preparations for both events. The level and detail of organisation has been absolutely incredible, right down to the finest detail of logistics. There has been teams of people making sure that everything is going right, and from the speaker perspective, I’ve been repeatedly awed by the care and attention given to making the event a success. There are too many people to name (and I haven’t asked permission to name people!) but I’d like to thank everyone who’s helped me in my preparation for TechEd North America and TechEd Europe.
If you’re coming along to TechEd North America and/or TechEd Europe, then please do stop by and say hello. I’m speaking, and I will also be helping out at the booths so bring your questions along and get help from us!    

My TechEd North America session – I will be presenting on Monday 11th June at 4:45pm, or 16:45 if you prefer your numbers in 24 hour clock! The Agenda Builder for TechEd North America is here, and I recommend that you use it. There are so many great sessions, it is hard to keep track.

My TechEd Europe sessionI will be presenting on Thursday 28th June at 10:15am. To build your agenda for TechEd Europe, please visit this link.

At these events, it can be difficult to find time to go and visit the sponsors, but I always find that it is worth the effort. Remember that these people love Microsoft technologies as much as you do, and they are accustomed to getting the technology to work in customer environments. They might be able to provide you with advice to solve a business problem, or to foresee a business problem which you didn’t know existed. For TechEd North America, the Partners and Sponsors (TechEd North America) link can be found here. For TechEd Europe, the Sponsors and Exhibitors (Europe) list can be found here.

Social Events – there are social events at TechEd. For example, at TechEd Europe, there are a number of social events. For example, on Tuesday 26th June, there is a Welcome Reception, and on Wednesday 27th there is a Delegate Party.

At TechEd North America, there is a Women in IT Luncheon with awesome speaker Catherine Kaputa and I’ll be there to hear the ‘people’ perspective in Technology. I help to organise SQLPass events for ‘Women in Technology’ in Europe as part of the SQLPass organisation, so I’ll be very interested to see the TechEd perspective too.

At TechEd North America, the closing party will involve a visit to Universal’s Islands of Adventure® theme park. That will be lots of fun!

My only (unsolicited) piece of advice: make the most of TechEd, don’t be shy! I love my subject, and I love the challenge of fitting technology to the business need.

The SQL Server 2012 motto of ‘further, faster, forward’ applies across the Microsoft technologies, and TechEd is the right place to pick everyone’s brains!

And if you’re wondering what my screensaver is going to be….

I love this song, this video and IE9. So it has to be done, although I will have it on ‘silent’!

Ilook forward to seeing you there.

Blogging is a two-way conversation!

The community blogging event #meme15 created by Jason Strate ( Blog | Twitter ) challenged SQL bloggers to write about blogging, in the hope that this will encourage people. This challenge provoked me to think about the reason that I blog. I have a number of reasons for blogging:

Blogging is a two-way conversation. I get comments and emails via my blog and I cherish them all. Even the challenging comments are superb, because I am glad that someone has taken the time to comment and it helps me to learn. 

Blogging helps me to connect with the community. At SQLBits and other community events, I don’t always get the chance to speak properly with the people that I’d like to meet. I also don’t get the chance to answer all the questions that I receive during my sessions. My blog is a way of reaching out to people, and it is always here. I can use it to respond to queries,and then write to the individual to say that I’ve answered via my blog without naming them.

There are some lonely people in the community. I’m sad to say that I occasionally come across some very lonely people in the community. Blogging means that you can start to touch people, and they can touch you. 

I love Business Intelligence so much because it is a people subject as well as a technical subject.  The ‘people’ aspect is very much a part of the heart of my passion for Business Intelligence. Blogging is my way of understanding different people’s perspectives.

Blogging has also helped me to feel part of the community, regardless of distance or time. It helps me to connect. As we all know, it can be difficult to juggle family, work, life, learning, reading books and ‘me time’. Blogging is, for me, a way of reaching out to people regardless of their distance or time difference or my commitments or their commitments. 

Blogging helps me to really know my stuff. I’m a firm believer in that, to really know something, you have to be able to explain it. I also want to put back into the community some of the help I’ve had over the years, including people on this list, from whom I’ve learned a great deal over the years. It’s always nice to know that you’ve made someone’s day a bit easier just by lending a ‘helping hand’ remotely.

I know that this is more personal than what I usually write, but I hope it helps you to see why I blog. Your feedback is always welcome!

Jen x

SQLBits X – All signed up!

SQLBitsis the largest European community conference, dedicated to Microsoft SQL Server. This SQLBits is going to be extra-special, however: it is the UK Technical Launch for SQL Server 2012, and is held on 29th – 30thMarch. So if you’re interested in the new SQL Server – and who isn’t? – then you better register quick. If you haven’t been before, the event involves a series of quality sessions focusing on various aspects of SQL Server, ranging from hard-core DBA beefy subjects right through to end-user topics. It’s fair to say that there is something for everyone who has an interest in SQL Server.
There are preconference events, which are paid-for, and free community events on the Saturday. I’ve been privileged to hold two preconferences now, one on Data Visualisation, and the other on Sharepoint Business Intelligence. I’ve also been privileged to conduct general one-hour sessions on Reporting Services at SQLBits 7, and Data Visualisation at SQLBits 8, and one on Mobile Business Intelligence on the iPad at SQLBits 9. You are most welcome to download the presentations from Slideshare, which you can do here.  I’ve registered to do the full three days at SQLBits.
You’re probably wondering why I would pre-pay for a precon without the full list being published yet? Basically, I want to pick their brains of the Microsoft SQL Server product teams for a whole day and the SQLBits precon are the best way for me to do just that. 
I feel that the SQLBits precon are an opportunity to ‘touch’ Microsoft Product teams. I believe that, by attending a precon from the Microsoft SQL Server Product teams, there is no better way of getting the real information, straight from the people who manage, run and write SQL Server as well as direct and shape its future. Basically, these are the people who know SQL Server inside out – because they make SQL Server. I would love to spend a day with the Product teams to listen to what they have to say and quiz them on relevant issues. I want to hear them. This is particularly the case where there is a new SQL Server version coming out; I want to make sure I get every detail possible!
There is always room for unscripteddiscussion with the Microsoft SQL Server Product teams. Sometimes I find that the ‘value add’ from a course comes from the unscripted discussion from the presenters. That’s the golden stuff for me, and that’s why I’ll be attending one of the precons. I don’t know which one yet so it is pot luck! However, I’ll be there and I cannot wait!
See you there!

Photos from SQLRally Nordic in Stockholm

As you know, I recently presented at SQLRally in Sweden. I don’t normally post photographs, but I thought that some of you might like to see what it was like! This blog is just a bit of fun and I’ll wait and see what you think of my ‘off-topic’ blog!

In a previous life, I used to work in Stockholm, so returning to Sweden was very exciting for me. Although it was great to be back, on the previous evening, I had walked around Stockholm with Dave Ballantyne. For SQL folks in the UK, Dave will need no introduction, but in case you’d like to see some of his presentations for SQLBits, please take a look here

As you can see here, the conference centre at Aronsborg was waiting to receive us. It tickled me to see that we were the ‘mightiest SQL Server and Business Intelligence in Midgaard’! Here are some photos from the Conference Centre that give a flavour of our welcome:




I had work to do whilst I was in Stockholm, so I made use of the Regus office in Stockholm for the day. No time for sightseeing, I’m afraid! As a coffee-drinking workaholic, the occasional use of their business lounges suits me. I have a weakness for Nespresso! There is one near my home. I’ve got a TripIt membership and a 10-visit Gold pass, which means I can use their business lounges anywhere in the world. Here are some photos of their lounge: 


Sometimes people ask me how I fit it all in, and the truth is that I work everywhere I go, and squeeze something in as often as I can. Therefore, the occasional use of a business lounge, wherever I am, is very helpful in keeping things ticking over.

It means I don’t ‘smell the roses’ but I love my work so much, it is my passion! It makes me happy.

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!

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!