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Amy Phillips teaches executives how to interpret data, visualize business trends and craft meaningful stories

As COVID-19 has spread throughout the world, a slew of data emerged: The number of patients infected; the incubation period; the R0 (R naught), aka the number of additional people each patient is likely to infect; the death and recovery rates; and the number of health care facilities, people and equipment available to treat patients with the novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness.

The data told a grim story: unless governments, industries, communities and individuals quickly mobilized to drastically reduce human-to-human contact, systems would become overburdened and many people would die. The associated data visualization flooded social media feeds and news stories, and a resounding battle cry emerged in the (now socially distanced) community vernacular: ‘flatten the curve.’

Flattening the Curve for COVID-19, Coronavirus.

Flattening the curve is a plea for communities and individuals to alter behaviors for life-or-death results. It’s a story—and call to action—that’s driven by data visualization.

Visualizing the data behind the COVID-19 pandemic told a story that yielded unprecedented behavioral changes, as entire societies shut down and ordered citizens to stay home.

Data is a powerful tool for company, nonprofit and governmental leaders to inform business decisions.

But visualizing data, identifying its patterns and turning it into an illustrated story allows people to react better and more accurately to a situation than simply looking at numbers on a spreadsheet, said Amy Phillips, teaching professor of Business Information and Analytics at the Daniels College of Business.

Amy Phillips

Amy Phillips

She teaches Becoming a Visual Organization: The Power of Data Storytelling, a popular three-day workshop for Executive Education at Daniels. The class is hands-on and directly applicable for business professionals who have data and want to start analyzing and visualizing it.

Phillips asks participants to ‘BYOD’ (Bring Your Own Data) to the workshop, which always starts with the question: ‘What do you want to answer with this data set?’ Then, students make sure they have the appropriate level of granularity in their data. Finally, they input that data using either the Tableau or Microsoft Power BI software.

“We can give that data a voice and it can tell a story over time,” Phillips said. “There’s different types of charts and graphs and visualization types that we can use to craft those stories and tease out patterns.”

Take the COVID-19 pandemic again, for example. The state of Colorado is using Tableau to visualize the outbreak’s progression, updating its data visualization website daily as containment efforts increase to try to slow the contagion. Phillips believes the state government is doing an effective job of telling the story of Colorado’s outbreak.

The “go-to” source on visualizing the COVID-19 pandemic on an international scale, Phillips said, is the Coronavirus Resource Center dashboard from Johns Hopkins University & Medicine. Also updated daily, it incorporates data from the World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China, DXY, 1Point3Acres, worldometer, BNO News, state and national government health departments, and local media reports.

Johns Hopkins Covid-19 dashboard

Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) as of March 30, 2020. Courtesy: coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html

As for flattening the curve, at the time of this interview, Phillips said, “Unfortunately, most models do not predict a “flattening,” but a HUGE spike in confirmed cases and deaths (at least for the next few weeks).” The next day, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis ordered all Coloradans to stay at home.

Phillips’ data storytelling workshop has included business professionals from oil and gas to finance to real estate to startups to the Department of Interior and everything in between.

“Most organizations are sitting on enormous amounts of data and they’ve had it for years and years and years, whereas startups are like, ‘listen, we get that data is a competitive advantage; we want to be able to do this really well right out of the gate,’” Phillips said.

She added that data can be overwhelming, and people want to understand it in a quick, accurate format, which is what data visualization allows.

“We know that when we look at a picture, we can detect patterns far quicker than we can by sifting through rows and columns of quantitative data and just seeing numbers,” Phillips said. “This is where we’re going; it’s all infographics. I don’t want to read a five-page article. No, show me a picture. Your infographic is crafted to whatever the story or narrative is that you want to tell.”

Phillips has been teaching at Daniels for 20 years. She also is the co-author of the award-winning and best-selling textbook “Business Driven Information Systems.”

The next data storytelling class will be held online April 23, April 30 and May 7, 2020. For more information or to register, visit daniels.du.edu/executive-education/workshops/data-visualization.

Please visit DU’s COVID-19 website and subscribe to @uofdenver Twitter for updates regarding COVID-19.

Please visit DU’s COVID-19 website and subscribe to @uofdenver Twitter for updates regarding COVID-19.