There are lots of messages filling up my voice mailbox from folks wanting to sell me something they call ‘Analytics.’ Some tell me I need to buy a data warehouse. Others say I need dashboards. One guy insists I really need his company’s data model. I’m old, tired, and confused, so I decided to develop my own framework for evaluating ‘Analytics.’ I call my approach the Orange Napoleon Continuum.
On one end of The ON Continuum is the 10th anniversary of Philippe Starck’s gold-plated juicer. On the other end is Charles Minard’s graphic depiction of deaths suffered by Napoleon’s army as they marched to Moscow in 1812, and their subsequent retreat back to the Neman River after the Russian Campaign. The Starck Juicer was issued in 2000. Minard drew his graphic (by hand) in 1869.
When we look at Starck’s gold juicer, we get the same feeling we get when we see a beautiful work of art. In fact, Stark’s juicer is a work of art because one is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Psychologists call our feelings about the Starck Juicer a ‘visceral reaction’ because we don’t consciously evaluate the juicer’s beauty. It’s just beautiful and seductive and cool and that’s it.
But there is one big problem with owning a tenth anniversary Philippe Starck gold plated juicer — it’s pretty, yes, but you can’t make juice with it. In fact, if you buy one, you’ll get a piece of paper explicitly instructing you not to make juice because the juice will damage the gold plating.
At the other end of the ON Continuum is Minard’s graphic. With one quick glance, Minard delivers a snapshot of human suffering that is difficult for the human mind to comprehend. We can see the army first crosses the Neman River with half a million soldiers. After the retreat from Moscow back to the Neman, only 10,000 survived .
From an ‘Analytics’ perspective, one word sums up the power of Minards graphic: cause. At locations of major battles, we can see significant reductions of soldiers (e.g. Borodino, Berezina River on the retreat). Minard shows us ‘cause.’ Minard brilliantly included a record of Russian winter temperatures over the duration of the retreat showing another ‘cause’ of death — thousands froze as they marched home.
Cause. Isn’t this what we must demand from our Analytics? Only when we know cause can we hope to devise solutions. But determining cause is difficult demanding scientific thought and rigor — it’s hard. On the other hand, canned dashboards, gauges, and pie charts are easy, and though they are really pretty, most of the ones I’ve seen can’t make juice.