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Stories over spreadsheets

Kris Hammond on replacing rows and columns with sentences and paragraphs.

I didn’t realize how much I dislike spreadsheets until I was presented with a vision of the future where their dominance isn’t guaranteed.

That eye-opening was offered by Narrative Science CTO Kris Hammond (@whisperspace) during a recent interview. Hammond’s company turns data into stories: They provide sentences and paragraphs instead of rows and columns. To date, much of the attention Narrative Science has received has focused on the media applications. That’s a natural starting point. Heck, I asked him about those very same things when I first met Hammond at Strata in New York last fall. But during our most recent chat, Hammond explored the other applications of narrative-driven data analysis.

“Companies, God bless them, had a great insight: They wanted to make decisions based upon the data that’s out there and the evidence in front of them,” Hammond said. “So they started gathering that data up. It quickly exploded. And they ended up with huge data repositories they had to manage. A lot of their effort ended up being focused on gathering that data, managing that data, doing analytics across that data, and then the question was: What do we do with it?”

Hammond sees an opportunity to extract and communicate the insights locked within company data. “We’ll be the bridge between the data you have, the insights that are in there, or insights we can gather, and communicating that information to your clients, to your management, and to your different product teams. We’ll turn it into something that’s intelligible instead of a list of numbers, a spreadsheet, or a graph or two. You get a real narrative; a real story in that data.”

My takeaway: The journalism applications of this are intriguing, but these other use cases are empowering.

Why? Because most people don’t speak fluent “spreadsheet.” They see all those neat rows and columns and charts, and they know something important is tucked in there, but what that something is and how to extract it aren’t immediately clear. Spreadsheets require effort. That’s doubly true if you don’t know what you’re looking for. And if data analysis is an adjacent part of a person’s job, more effort means those spreadsheets will always be pushed to the side. “I’ll get to those next week when I’ve got more time …”

We all know how that plays out.

But what if the spreadsheet wasn’t our default output anymore? What if we could take things most of us are hard-wired to understand — stories, sentences, clear guidance — and layer it over all that vital data? Hammond touched on that:

“For some people, a spreadsheet is a great device. For most people, not so much so. The story. The paragraph. The report. The prediction. The advisory. Those are much more powerful objects in our world, and they’re what we’re used to.”

He’s right. Spreadsheets push us (well, most of us) into a cognitive corner. Open a spreadsheet and you’re forced to recalibrate your focus to see the data. Then you have to work even harder to extract meaning. This is the best we can do?

With that in mind, I asked Hammond if the spreadsheet’s days are numbered.

“There will always be someone who uses a spreadsheet,” Hammond said. “But, I think what we’re finding is that the story is really going to be the endpoint. If you think about it, the spreadsheet is for somebody who really embraces the data. And usually what that person does is they reduce that data down to something that they’re going to use to communicate with someone else.”

A thought on dashboards

I used to view dashboards as the logical step beyond raw data and spreadsheets. I’m not so sure about that anymore, at least in terms of broad adoption. Dashboards are good tools, and I anticipate we’ll have them from now until the end of time, but they’re still weighed down by a complexity that makes them inaccessible.

It’s not that people can’t master the buttons and custom reports in dashboards; they simply don’t have time. These people — and I include myself among them — need something faster and knob-free. Simplicity is the thing that will ultimately democratize data reporting and data insights. That’s why the expansion of data analysis requires a refinement beyond our current dashboards. There’s a next step that hasn’t been addressed.

Does the answer lie in narrative? Will visualizations lead the way? Will a hybrid format take root? I don’t know what the final outputs will look like, but the importance of data reporting means someone will eventually crack the problem.

Full interview

You can see the entire discussion with Hammond in the following video.

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  • Cay Hasselmann

    Is that not Wolfram Alpha in new clothes?

  • http://www.collatebox.com/ Raghav

    Honestly speaking I still feel that Spreadsheet are the crux for any kind of data storage. Any organization today works with spreadsheet be it Financial aspect, Accounting or even sales and marketing.
    Also with the number of firms entering today such as IBM Docs, CollateBox http://www.collatebox.com/ I don’t think so people will readily move from spreadsheets to any other form of tools.

  • http://paulmwatson.com Paul M. Watson

    That is a really interesting point about dashboards. We see proof of it in the adoption of Twitter and Facebook, streams of “stories” vs. dashboards of widgets. I’ve built a few dashboards and they continually fail to provide the fresh, easy to use functionality of a stream of stories. Being able to automatically turn dashboard data into short stories could work very well. The other benefit is streams work anywhere. Dashboards require large monitors. Streams work on everything from a wall mounted LCD to the desktop to your mobile phone to email.