Tag Archives: visualisation

A Tangible Million

Occasionally, certain ideas seem to insist themselves upon me, seeming important, not going away and popping themselves up like toast everyday around breakfast. Lately, it has been the idea that we generally have no idea what a million really is. Not really. Not in a real sense, like how many hairs on your head or blades of grass on a football pitch.

You know, I’m not even sure if a million really exists. I have no way of really knowing, not in an instinctual way . And then there’s all this talk about the economy and bailouts where billions and trillions enter the mix and I think that, as humans that we do take a lot things on trust. We need to, if someone is running past you bleeding shouting BEAR! you would probably not care too much about the tangibility of the bear. Maybe there is no bear… this IS York!

I know it’s my problem, but when trying to understand anything I often visualize it, to make it into something where I can see the big messy picture. Mind maps are great at this. A great way of both representing nearness and re-representing that back to yourself. Doodles are good too… tapping your subconscious for meaning and seeing what it serves up (mileage may vary).

I then often need to nickname items, or create a reference that brings back the essence of the thing. Pattern Languages are great at this because they force you to give each “thing” a catchy title. Catchy titles rock (that could be a pattern in itself).

One “trick” that people often use to help with the problem of understanding big numbers is to introduce time or space into the equation. For example, if a trillion were steps you could walk to Venus etc… Which at times although memorable ( I just made that up by the way) is totally meaningless in that I have no plans to walk to Venus. A hiking trip to outerspace is just not a tangible thing – who could carry the amount of Kendal Mint Cake you’d need? Impossible! Think about the blisters!

Sometimes I try to personalize the thing, to bring the subject down to human size. For example, it’s interesting to note that Chris Garrett ( a local blogger and author and lovely bloke ) has roughly the same number of Twitter followers as people who attend a home match at Bradford City. Knowing that fact alters the way I think about Bradford and his audience, I mean, suddenly twelve thousand, in terms of cheers and boos seems like a LOT of people… intimidating even. When was the last time you spoke to ( and received feedback from ) even a quarter of that many people. It must be weird being a successful blogger or playing for Bradford City.

But here’s the thing, a million people is a very different number to a million pounds (or any object). Nobody may have told you, but people are not the same as things… You heard it here first.

And finally, to really understand something, I need to play with it. For it to become something that really is part of me. I’m like a big baby. Unless I’ve chewed something, it’s not real.

And so, when people try to make any abstract thing real, I applaud them. Especially big numbers which I’m yet to fully believe exist.

See the Visualizing One Trillion Dollars on the Mint.com Blog, it’s great but I immediately want to play with the data. In the “tanks” visualisation, would altering the size of tank to match each country’s spend on defence have improved or ruined the visualisation? I wonder why they didn’t include the table of data they’d collected?

If someone wanted to give you a million quid in used notes, they could probably fit it in a shoe box… if they used large denomination notes and had big feet. A million isn’t what it used to be is it.. and you’d think someone that rich would at least spend something on a nice box… Crikey!

But even the language aspect of numers fails us, I mean, a trillion doesn’t sound a lot more than a billion which is next door but one to a million, in the same way that a tricycle isn’t a lot more than a bicycle, it’s just a bit tricky when speeding around corners.

Now take a look at this

p.s If anyone would like to send me a shoe box stuffed with used notes you really don’t have to wrap it nicely but at least send it registered delivery will you.

If Data Is Money You’re Probably Burning It!


It really does seem to me that data is where all the Web2.0 action is.

Because there has been so much talk about mashups it can be easy for us to be tired of hearing about them. We are all a bit Web2.0 weary already. Once you’ve seen one GoogleMap it’s hard to get excited about the next.

I’ve been refining my data-mining tools over the weekend, adding in some semantic possibilities (trying to understand what the data is about) and visualisation (trying to communicate what large amounts of data actually tells you). These two technologies, from my perspective have really matured over the last 5 years to the point where idiots like me can use them.

Being data-driven is key element for any online business these days. Even for the smaller business, there’s real value hiding in their data. Or to put it another way, there’s money in data, money in data about data, money in data about data about data and most companies are squandering their opportunity, missing the point.

The Four Types Of Data You Are Probably Burning

Of course, your company isn’t burning the data in a destructive way, but it is lying there, unwashed and unwanted. As a creative exercise, all you have to do it pick two of the types of data from the list below and “breed” them. I guarantee you will have a fantastic idea for your company.

1. Data That’s Out There (Wild, Free Range Data)

Out there on the internet is data just sitting there. You can take that data and do something with it, for example Google did that and they haven’t done so bad. Of course you might have to find two or three interesting sources of data and be creative with it but it IS possible.
And lurking in all the data that’s out there are things that people want to find an can’t. Whether you think Google is a good search engine or not if you examine what your customers really want the chances are you can help them to achieve it.

What are people saying about your company? Reputation-based search engines are starting to appear but do they work for your company?

The online landscape is rich with wild and free data, all you have to do is do if first find it, and then something interesting with it. “Interesting” doesn’t even have to be difficult to be interesting.

2. Your Internal Data (Captive Data)

Most companies are sitting on databases of products, people, places, messages and information flow. If you can find a way to blend your captive data with the wild stuff then you have a good chance of producing a healthy hybrid.

A trivial example might be to use data-mined data alongside customer lists. I can already imagine a “discovered” Flickr feed for a CRM system. I said the example was trivial, I meant scary.

Another tactic is to experiement with letting your captive data out into the wild with RSS feeds and seeing what happens.

3. Your Customers Data ( Very Sensitive Data )

Calm down. I don’t mean customers’ data per se, I mean data about data. I still find it fascinating that I would be loathe to a bookshop other than Amazon because they’ve not only got my addresss, but they’ve got the addresses of people I send stuff to. I can’t imagine how anyone could ever replace Last.fm because my listening chart has taken years to build up.

You sites’ log files, in fact all the stuff you know about your customers is data that becomes more valuable than the original transaction. It’s the data, my usage of the system (perhaps aggregated with other customers) that keeps me coming back.

4. Your Competitors Data (Almost Secret Data)

I say competitor, but by that, I mean any other organisation that is letting their data run free. There are opportunities to mix a customers profile data with some of your data.

The first thing that comes to mind is a terrible example… What if a call centre played me songs I like rather than ones I don’t? I said it was terrible, but it’s doable right now. A company has my phone number which is tied to my email address which is enough to find my Last.fm account and fish out a Nine Inch Nails track. If I’m phoning to complain though it would probably be better from them to look for songs Delicious tagged with “relaxing” and send me one of those whilst my call is being valued.

My point is that many companies are throwing away their crown jewels, their usage data. There exists huge opportunities for companies willing to blur their data boundaries, finding genuinely useful data where there once was none, combining external free-range data with internal data and letting internal data let it’s hair down a bit.

This data revolution isn’t just about Google Maps.