Tim is a world-renowned specialist in the application of technology in the field of market and opinion research and is probably the most widely-published writer in the field. His roots are in data analysis, programming, training and technical writing. These days, as principal at meaning he works with researchers, users of research data and technology providers around the globe, as an independent advisor. He is quite passionate about improving the research process and empowering people through better use of technology.

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I’ve always considered it one of MR’s embarrassing little secrets that so many market researchers don’t actually have a passion for numbers. Some get on with them even thought they don’t come naturally, others rely on data processing people – “number crunchers” – to do the stats for them. Indeed, statistics is the least popular module in one postgrad qualification in MR I am familiar with, and no doubt quantitative analysis would be too, if it were not mandatory.

It frequently shows in the mechanical presentation of data that often passes for analysis. Yet good analysis and presentation can bring the data to life and, dare I say it, actually reveal the beauty in the numbers and in the patterns that emerge. While people strive for ‘impact’ from their reports, are they overlooking the power of beauty, of the abstract, of images that can paint a thousand words? There is so much scope for creativity when working with data – what a pity that ‘getting creative with the numbers’ has come to mean manipulating the results rather than striving to find better ways to reveal their secrets.

Three disparate experiences reminded me of what surprising beauty there can be in data.

Chart art

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First, was some examples of “Ruby Art” that Dale Chant, the author of the Ruby analysis software gave to me. Ruby was the program that won last year’s ASC/MRS Technology Effectivess Award. He had created slide after slide of charts containing massive the amounts of data which Ruby is unusually adept at handling – so much so that these charts became beautiful images in their own rights. (You can see three examples above and another right at the top of this post.)

Scientific wonder

Second, was a recent exhibition staged by Andrew Carnie, a Southampton colleague of mine at Winchester School of Art. Entitled “Seized: Out of the World” it presented what was actually scientific data from non-invasive scans arising from some new medical research into temporal lobe epilepsy. It was done in such a way that took the observer entirely into the strange out-of-body experience that epileptics often describe, though skilfully creating time-lapse sequences. It was beautiful in a most haunting way. (An image from the exhibition appears below.)

Tin-pot stats lesson

The third and most mundane example came the other night as I dug our hand-cranked pop-corn maker out of the kitchen cupboard, added some oil and some popcorn-on-the-stove popcorn kernels and set it on the stove top on a low heat. I waited and after a while the corn started to pop, as always: one pinged against the lid, then another then a few more, then a crescendo, clattering on the top and the sides before a slow diminuendo and descent to the odd one popping with seconds between them. I realised I had just been listening to a normal distribution being played out for me and anyone else within earshot. Beautiful, and tasty too.

It is a pity that time and budget, along with perceived client expectations are so often used in research as an excuse to make the unpredictable appear predictable, the awesome so often simply awful at the hands of PowerPoint and Excel. All that precious, carefully gathered data deserves much better.

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