First off — Hans Rosling is an inspiration to us all in the business of analytics and data visualization. Not only this story is extremely relevant, but the way he shows the numbers — there is a lot to learn. I will make an attempt here to deconstruct his latest TED talk in terms of what a good BI tool show do, and also how this is a great use case of how great BI users behave:

BI Features Used by Hans Rosling:

  • The most prominent is the use of Time as a special type of “dimension”. The tool knows that Time will support the concept of a Play button. This is still very novel — most BI tool, OpenI included, treat Time as any other dimension — you can drill up, drill down, set date filters, or date ranges — but that’s about it.  Taking a lesson from here, what we should do instead is that the moment there is a Time dimension, user should have the option to “superimpose” Time in “Play” mode within a given analysis — this should result in a Video Player like slider widget appear at the bottom of the analysis with a big old Play/Pause button next to it
  • Notice how he first presents the data bubbles in dual-axis graph and then transitions it over to a map view. This makes the concept of “background canvas” a dynamic entity for presenting data. How many other choices a user can have (in addition to dual-axis and map overlay) to use as the context in which the data should be presented
  • He keeps only 1 attribute per axis – country in X-axis, and % of population with HIV on Y-axis, and everything else (gender, per capital income, etc.) is treated as a filter (in OLAP speak). This keeps the visual very clear on its message. I have often struggled with OLAP based analyses, which have multiple dimensions on each axis, which makes sense sometimes in the table view, but the chart-view is completely horrid. Single data attribute per axis is a way to address that
  • When it comes to drilling further into data, he basically clicks on a country bubble — and it can either split by income groups, or only the specific country goes on a time play motion while others stay the some, etc. — the key for me here is that drilling down is best done at the visual level — somewhere on the chart/graph itself the user should be able to isolate a data group (in this case a country bubble), and have a choice on drilling down or move it back and forth in time

Hans Rosling as a BI User/Presenter

  • Emotion, emotion, emotion… he is so far away from the stereotype of a statistician making a presentation. He cares about what he’s presenting. The numbers are real people — they get sick, and they can either get better or they can die.. you can feel that empathy as he presents. 
  • Al Gore did this first (that I can recall) in The Inconvenient Truth when he brought a crane ladder to hoist him up so he can point to the tallest bar in the chart that he is showing. Maybe a bit too melodramatic — but it drives the point, and also makes a more visceral connection with the data. Hans Rosling stands on top of a table at the beginning of the presentation to explain the different numbers he is presenting, and the audience is at once connected and engaged
  • His bringing of the long metal pole to point to the numbers instead of your generic laser pointer (“I have solidified the laser beam”) is another way to get more personal and physical to show how involved he is
  • Ultimately he has leverages the BI tool to make a presentation, to tell a compelling story. Earlier in my career, we worked on a feature with another BI tool that automatically generated powerpoints from its charts.  Yes, it was pretty crude, and didn’t really work that well usabilitywise — but the point is, this was definitely a feature aimed at helping users build a story off the various charts and grahps and analyses. People want to tell a story — the BI tool should help them do that.

Ultimately, watching Mr. Rosling is definitely inspirational — I can only hope that OpenI will one day does the things he’s shown us in this presentation. I’m sure we will get there in due time, but it is the spirit in which BI tools are used, and their ultimate message.. that’s the important thing to keep in mind as we move the product forward.