Eek! There's a Human in Your Data

During the SAS Analytics Experience conference I hosted a table talk about "Persuading with Data". A table talk allows likeminded participants to discuss an issue and share common experiences. I like these talks because everyone contributes with a unique viewpoint. It's not easy to persuade with data, there are several factors to consider. First even with the best data in the world, you don't always win. People are not always moved by facts and statistics. It's true.

I had examples of how persuading with data had failed. We discussed how the need to establish common ground with your audience is a must. One astute participant said too often data professionals failed to see "the human in the data". We have to humanize the data, he repeated. It was quite astounding to hear because I knew I was guilty.

Several years ago I heard David McCandless speak. At the time the phrase "data is the new oil" was popular. He presented data as the "new soil". This point resonated with me. Yes! Data allows organizations to bring issues to light, solve problems, and improve processes. How exciting! Let’s get busy massaging, cleansing, and visualizing it! Not once did I think of the data as representing a human.

But in the data I use each day, there is a human on each row. Someone withdrawing money from an ATM for a birthday gift. Someone following a web link about the features of a new car. Someone registering a complaint about a debt she already paid. Some of these tables have millions of rows -- millions of people.

This is where the data story enters. This participant explained that a company needed to change a departmental work flow process. No one was using the process and it was causing issues. Seems like a slide deck with graphs breaking down the process issues was in order. A bar graph and even a few pie charts for good measure would work. They took a different route. The pulled the employee names from the data table and interviewed each of them about the process issues they had.

The resulting presentation highlighted each employee’s experience in a data narrative. It was a success as the management team was better able to understand the human side of the issue. It wasn't flashy graphics and hard data that convinced, it was the data stories -- the humans in the data. It was more persuasive in fact. He made a brilliant point about thinking of other ways to present data.

Does your data have a human in it?

Tricia Aanderud, Senior SAS Consultant for Zencos

Tricia Aanderud, President of And Data Inc., regularly shares information-design tips, programming tricks, and other SAS programming knowledge through her blog: She has co-authored two books this year, Building Business Intelligence Using SAS: Content Development Examples and The 50 Keys to Learning SAS Stored Processes, and is working on a third on the use of SAS Visual Analytics. When not writing books, Aanderud busies herself by spreading the SAS gospel to corporations that need help understanding how to transform their data into meaningful charts, reports, and dashboards using the SAS BI solution. Tricia has a background in technical writing, process engineering, and customer service. She has been an enthusiastic SAS user since 2002 and has presented papers at the SAS Global Forum and other industry conferences. She has a BA in mass communications from Eastern Kentucky University. Born in Kentucky, she now lives in Raleigh, N.C., with her husband and two bratty Siamese cats.

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Re: Day-in-a-life
  • 11/1/2016 2:23:12 PM

Data is important, but it isn't always easy to interpret. Developing a data story through human interaction is often what is needed to solve a particular problem. 

  • 10/30/2016 10:30:17 AM

The "day in a life" is one of my favorite types of market research. It shows what the target market does on a typical weekday or weekend, which allows the marketer to see where product or service usage fits in the picture.

Re: Sweet emotion
  • 10/22/2016 10:59:48 PM


Louis writes

What we are experiencing is the melt down of American Democracy.  
I keep expecting Jerry Springer to show up at any moment to reveal who the "baby daddy" is.


What I find really sobering (and disgusting) is the widespread acceptance and assimilation of this "new normal" of de facto acceptable behavior by a breathtakingly huge segment of the U.S. public (somewhere around 40%, per poll results).

In addition to an eyebrow-raising "don't confuse me with data" attitude is the adulation of one of the presidential candidates – now widely recognized for his bigotry, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, lying, deceit, trickery, duplicity, ignorance, belligerance, and narcissim – as basically the Second Coming of the Messiah.

It seems to me a lot of data analysis will be seriously degraded if people (and attitudes) like this proliferate and start influencing the ways data is recognized as valid and officially analyzed.


Re: Sweet emotion
  • 10/21/2016 10:55:39 PM

Jameson, as an aside, part of the presidential debate problem this year was the choice of moderators. The most whiny, entitled, or the quietest nicest ... either way, they didn't have the journalistic chops or courage to stand up the candidates when they got ugly. Until this most recent guy, who very much surprised me. He nearly kept them in line for most of it!

Re: Sweet emotion
  • 10/19/2016 8:28:08 AM

The key to this is that most people are not even aware of this bias. They "know" what is right and wrong.

Re: Sweet emotion
  • 10/19/2016 8:04:36 AM

@Broadway. Great point about the debates (not just in the final campaign but even in the primaries). I understand that the town hall style debate is a slightly different animal in that the questions aren't prepared ahead of time and the subject matter changes throughout. However, I know that the teacher in my public speaking class in high school (which included a segment on debating) would have flipped out if he saw one of us slip in a snide remark or otherwise interrupt when it was the other speaker's turn for rebuttal.

If candidates for the presidency can't follow long-accepted rules in a discussion, what will they do when elected?



Re: Sweet emotion
  • 10/19/2016 7:57:18 AM

@Tomsg. Good point about cultural bias. While it's always been true that those in one country want to apply their moral standards to those in others (think back to how explorers viewed native populations five centuries ago), that bias is top of mind today. We have instant news coverage of global events, events that would be given passing mention in a weekly news report 50 years ago. Plus, we are such a mobile society today that we are much more likely to encounter people of very different cultures (immigrants and tourists) than ever before. Many of those experiences can lead to harsh judgments based on different moral codes.

Re: Sweet emotion
  • 10/18/2016 9:18:41 PM

There is no more trust in the other side's data or its experts. There is only disdain. The art of argument is lost upon people who don't believe in debate, let alone compromise. It's a broken public system. Which is even more amazing considering how well business still works.

Re: Sweet emotion
  • 10/18/2016 4:22:40 PM

I agree. I have even found that there is a cultural bias in our morals as well.Not the whole world follows our judeo-christian model of ethics.

Re: Sweet emotion
  • 10/18/2016 1:16:34 PM

Jim excellent point and we are seeing it play out in Presidential election every day. The moral compass is based on our own experience today not on a society standard as in years gone by.

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