How Communicating Analytics Is Like New York City

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I joined a new company, Clearhead, at the beginning of September, and it’s been a fun-tiring-exciting ride thus far (unfortunately, it hasn’t been a particularly prolific one with respect to this site!). One of the core tenets of the company – something that we are all passionate about because we have all seen it go horribly awry – is that we will always deliver information in a way that is clear, concise, (as) simple (as possible), and elegant. There’s a reason I have Data Visualization as one of the categories for this blog – I’ve long believed that there is an inordinate amount of incomprehensible charts, graphs, and tables being emailed and presented by analysts and marketers. We. Need. To. Do. Better! (as an industry).

Same Idea, but From Another Angle

So…shift to my recent trip to New York City. I was with the co-founders of the company, Matt and Ryan, who were both long-time New York City residents before moving to Austin (Ryan is a San Antonio native and has an affinity for The Big Apple that I find both baffling and moderately traitorous…but I’m sure that is a phase that will pass in due time as he gets re-acquainted with Austin). The last apartment Ryan lived in before returning to the Lone Star State was at 21st and 1st.

That’s important, so I’m going to write it again (I could make it really big and bold, but it’s not that kind of important, so we’ll just go with italics): Ryan lived in an apartment at 21st and 1st.

Here’s what’s interesting about that statement: you just read it, and you will be able to place yourself in one – and only one – of the two following groups:

  • You immediately knew that he lived in Midtown Manhattan (Midtown East, even) and had a mental image, if not of the exact intersection, then of a street/building/intersection reasonably near by
  • You registered the location mentally as “somewhere in New York City.”

I’ve now been to that exact apartment – and to that intersection – several times…and I still fall in the latter category. That’s not because I’m particularly slow or non-observant. It’s because I’ve never lived in New York, have never spent more than 4 consecutive days there, and have only rarely needed to get around the the city on my own, rather than simply tagging along with a local.

In short, I don’t speak “areas of Manhattan” with any degree of fluency. I cognitively know that the “Lower East Side” is generally towards the bottom and to the right of a north-oriented map of the island. But, I can’t tell you the vibe and character of that area. I can’t tell you what the main landmarks are there. I can’t tell you what the main thoroughfares are that bisect the area.

Now, you have read the past couple of paragraphs and thought one of two things:

  • “Seriously? He knows nothing about the Lower East Side other than what the three words ‘lower,’’ east,’ and ‘side’ describe?”
  • “Why is Tim belaboring this? Obviously – he hasn’t spent a lot of time in the city, so he doesn’t really intuitively know what is where.”

What’s interesting (borderline fascinating, really, if you’re into brain stuff) is that one of the statements above made total sense to you, and the other one seemed totally foreign. It’s like listening to a couple of people having an animated conversation in a foreign (to you) language. They are clearly communicating without any effort whatsoever, and, yet, it is insanely difficult to actually imagine how what sounds like fast-paced gibberish to you could possibly be clearly transmitting very real information and ideas.

The key, in both cases, is that everyone’s brain is wired differently, and the synaptic paths that have been traversed hundreds of times with different visual and experiential reinforcement (the Lower East Side, daily conversation in German, etc.) by one person have barely been traveled at all by others.

And, Yes, I Have a Point to All of This

As analysts, when we discuss, visualize, or present data, we are often the equivalent of a native New Yorker coordinating a visit with someone raised in Sour Lake, Texas (such as yours truly). Just as Matt and Ryan quickly learned that they could not skip any steps in guiding me from JFK to 23rd and 3rd, as analysts, we have to work really hard to speak in the visual language of the people to whom we’re delivering information. We have to minimize “the data” that gets presented and maximize “the meaning.”

The next time you get a blank look from someone to whom you are delivering the results of an analysis, stop and ask yourself if it’s because you’re a native New Yorker talking to someone who only visits occasionally. It’s not a knock against that person at all – the onus is on the native to be a good host and to figure out the best way to present the information in a way that it can be quickly and simply received.


  1. Definitely smiled as I read the article – you hit the nail on the head with that one. Can’t tell you how many people look blankly at the words “bounce rate” or think that google analytics has actual, detailed demographic information. Just have to take a deep breath, smile, and start from square one or, in your case, JFK.

  2. Great post TIm. It’s not just data visualization that has this problem of overcommunicating garbage and undercommunicating actual value …it’s a gigantic problem with the grunting and e-di**-measuring that passes for “big data insight” today.

    People grunting how many processors they are using, how many TB/PB of data they have, and how they splattered data into a Hadoop HDFS cluster, querying with Pig and using Sqool to…do who knows what. The mid-40s balding guy on stage grunting about hardware is never talking about the value to the business or the problem they solved.

    (BTW, I fit into the first group…those who look at NYC as one gigantic cluster (of chaos. Whomever decided it would be a good idea to have numbered streets going both directions was a masochist.)

  3. Another great article Tim! Was not aware you left Resource for a new venture. All the best of luck to you. Excited to see what it becomes!

    BTW – I keep seeing all these Tumblr sites popping up (Clearhead, Matt’s blog, etc). Will you be the next to convert to the dark side? 🙂

  4. Olin — Hah! I’d forgotten about our exchange on that! There was definitely a somewhat awkward, “Er…Tumblr?” from the final addition to the pre-launch team (me) as we were chatting about the site. And, as we’re working on our go-to-market plan, we expect to be enabling the actual “tumbling” capabilities. I still think it’s better for shorter-form posting intermingled with content discovery/sharing, but I’m looking forward to learning!

    Also, the guys at Union Metrics actually recently expanded their product platforms from Twitter (TweetReach) to Tumblr (Union Metrics for Tumblr)…and that was driven in part by the growth of the platform.

    You started on Tumblr, but, ultimately, wound up on WordPress, right?

  5. That’s correct! Back to WP for me. Still trying to figure out the benefits of Tumblr. Don’t quite understand it enough to form an opinion around the “sharing” benefits. However, I’d take WP any day as a CMS and for plugin / analytic benefits.

    However, for what it is worth, there’s a certain “I’m hip & innovative” aura surrounding Tumblr. So.. there you go. Enjoy your hipness 🙂

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