Why “Gut Instincts” Needs to be Brought Back into Data Analytics

Why “Gut Instincts” Needs to be Brought Back into Data Analytics

Last fall, at a large industry conference, I had the opportunity to conduct a series of discussions with industry leaders in a portable video studio set up in the middle of the conference floor. As part of our exercise, we had a visual artist do freeform storyboarding of the discussion on large swaths of five-foot by five-foot paper, which we then reviewed at the end of the session. For example, in a discussion of cloud computing, the artist drew a rendering of clouds, raining data on a landscape below, illustrated by sketches of office buildings. At a glance, one could get a good read of where the discussion went, and the points that were being made.

Data visualization is one of those up-and-coming areas that has just begin to breach the technology zone. There are some powerful front-end tools that help users to see, at a glance, trends and outliers through graphical representations – be they scattergrams, histograms or even 3D diagrams or something else eye-catching.  The “Infographic” that has become so popular in recent years is an amalgamation of data visualization and storytelling. The bottom line is technology is making it possible to generate these representations almost instantly, enabling relatively quick understanding of what the data may be saying.

The power that data visualization is bringing organizations was recently explored by Benedict Carey in The New York Times, who discussed how data visualization is emerging as the natural solution to “big data overload.”

This is much more than a front-end technology fix, however. Rather, Carey cites a growing body of knowledge emphasizing the development of “perceptual learning,” in which people working with large data sets learn to “see” patterns and interesting variations in the information they are exploring. It’s almost a return of the “gut” feel for answers, but developed for the big data era.

As Carey explains it:

“Scientists working in a little-known branch of psychology called perceptual learning have shown that it is possible to fast-forward a person’s gut instincts both in physical fields, like flying an airplane, and more academic ones, like deciphering advanced chemical notation. The idea is to train specific visual skills, usually with computer-game-like modules that require split-second decisions. Over time, a person develops a ‘good eye’ for the material, and with it an ability to extract meaningful patterns instantaneously.”

Video games may be leading the way in this – Carey cites the work of Dr. Philip Kellman, who developed a video-game-like approach to training pilots to instantly “read” instrument panels as a whole, versus pondering every gauge and dial. He reportedly was able to enable pilots to absorb within one hour what normally took 1,000 hours of training. Such perceptual-learning based training is now employed in medical schools to help prospective doctors become familiar with complicated procedures.

There are interesting applications for business, bringing together a range of talent to help decision-makers better understand the information they are looking at. In Carey’s article, an artist was brought into a medical research center to help scientists look at data in many different ways – to get out of their comfort zones. For businesses, it means getting away from staring at bars and graphs on their screens and perhaps turning data upside down or inside-out to get a different picture.