The Daniels Executive Education data visualization workshop focuses on answering questions rather than sifting data

Data could sure use an image consultant.

Just mention data—much less data analytics—and it can send shivers down the spines of mere mortals.

Amy Phillips

Amy Phillips

But data gets a bad rap, according to Amy Phillips, teaching professor of Business Information and Analytics at the Daniels College of Business. Phillips says data are neutral. Data are simply facts that need to be put into context to understand what they’re saying. Data are good and helpful. But understanding what your data are saying starts with defining what you want to know and asking the right questions.

Phillips could well be the image consultant that data needs.

“It’s unfortunate, but there really is truth to the fact that people are intimidated by data, especially if the word ‘analytics’ is added,” said Phillips, also a Daniels Executive Education faculty member. “I think it grew from an old mindset that data belonged to the IT and computer science people, and analyzing data was a behind-locked-doors sort of activity.

“The notion of math being involved didn’t help either. People’s knees started knocking when they heard math might be part of it.”

Data analytics workshops coming in February

With Phillips’ help, people are getting past their fear of data. The 22-year DU professor teaches an increasingly popular Daniels Executive Education workshop on data called, “Data Visualization Using Power BI.” The workshop helps business professionals of any background create, analyze and evaluate large data sets and turn them into visually impactful stories that can drive their business forward.

The next workshop will take place on three consecutive Wednesdays, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., beginning Feb. 15. The first session is in person at DU; the remaining two sessions—on Feb. 22 and Mar. 1—take place online in synchronous workshopping sessions with Phillips.

“The workshop takes a different approach in that we don’t focus on the data at the outset,” Phillips said. “We focus instead on the questions we want to answer and then look at the data sets to answer them.

“We have a module called ‘Finding the Needle in the Haystack.’ It’s an important concept because if all you’re doing is sifting data, it’s like trying to find the proverbial needle instead of answering a specific set of questions using data visualization.

“When you approach it from the perspective of answering questions—such as ‘Who’s buying my product?’—you’re able to identify patterns and see relationships that otherwise may remain hidden.”

Using Power BI for data visualization

Phillips admits that the phrase “data visualization” can sound as equally intimidating as “data analytics,” but it’s actually a simple concept.

“Data visualization has a straightforward definition,” Phillips said. “It’s the graphical representation of information and data. It’s about using visual elements—such as charts, graphs and maps—to understand trends and patterns, as well as outliers, in a data set.

“The raw numbers are still important, of course, but they take a back seat to developing an interactive graphical representation of the data and using storytelling to explain it. The raw data come into play only when someone needs proof that the visual representation and story being told are, indeed, true. In a colloquial sense, it’s used to put a non-believer—maybe a skeptical boss—more at ease.”

Phillips focuses the workshop on Microsoft’s free Power BI (Business Intelligence) software, a widely used data visualization tool. She uses Power BI as an alternative to Microsoft Excel, which many people associate with analyzing data.

“We use Power BI because it’s friendlier and easier to use than Excel,” said Phillips. “You can create maps and charts in Excel, but that’s not its true purpose. Excel is great for creating spreadsheets. But when it comes to creating bar charts and other graphics, Power BI is very intuitive and has some sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) assets that, in effect, do the data sifting for you.

“It’s easier, and it’s another way we’re taking the fear factor out of reviewing data,” she said. As part of the class, participants bring their own questions and their own data sets to review.

More than ‘pretty pictures’

Phillips also says that creating graphics to tell a story using data is about more than creating pretty pictures.

“Using some of Power BI’s AI visuals, the data can tell you what you might never discover, such as, ‘Does the color of a product really influence sales?’” Phillips said. “There could be a hidden relationship, but it would take me forever to uncover that. I’d be sifting data forever. But you can use some of these very simple AI visuals to tease out some of those patterns and hidden relationships.”

As data’s budding image consultant, Phillips is experimenting with better names for her craft—something friendlier than “data analytics.” The latest? “Visual analytics.” She’s not sure it will stick. But if it doesn’t, she knows a great way to use data to find a better one.

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