Data Visualization Heroes


Everybody has a hero. Your hero might be a professional athlete that you admire for their physical prowess. Your hero could be a musician that you admire for their songwriting and musical talent. To some, heroes are historical figures that discovered new lands or scientific truths, or built new machines to benefit humankind. Less often however, heroes are Swedish medical doctors, statisticians, or data visualization thought-leaders.

So perhaps I am unique (or not?), that I place Hans Rosling, Edward Tufte, and Nate Silver on the same list as Nolan Ryan, Brett Favre, Peter Gabriel, and Benjamin Franklin. Sure, they didn’t throw a baseball 100 miles an hour, or throw over 500 touchdowns…no platinum albums or kites in thunderstorms. But these individuals all have one belief in common, that’s near and dear to my heart:

The ability to tell simple, memorable, and insightful stories about your data is of paramount importance, and thoughtful data visualizations are the most powerful tool you can use to tell your story.

Intuitively, I’ve understood this principle during my 15 year business intelligence career, but it really crystalized about 5 years ago when I saw this 20 minute Ted Talk from Hans Rosling. If you’re short on time, start at 4:00. If you’re not short on time, watch the whole thing.

I retained more from that short presentation about social change in the world, the aids crisis in Africa, and the distribution of wealth in the world than I would have from an entire college course…all due to professor Rosling’s ability to tell a story, with a clearly-stated thesis, and clear, concise visualizations reinforcing that story.

I want my customers to Be Like Hans. As a Microsoft employee, when I am demonstrating some of the features of Microsoft’s flagship data visualization product, Power BI, I often do a similar visualization using data from the World Bank open data site. I created this in Power BI Desktop, published to my powerbi.com account, then “published to web” so I could embed it in an iframe below.

In my next blog, I’ll step through how to use Power BI Desktop create this visualization using the World Bank API.


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