Years ago, when I made the switch from procedural to object oriented programming, concepts such as function overloading fascinated me. A single function changing and behaving based on the types of values passed to it spoke volumes to its simplicity and elegance. Feeling a bit nostalgic I am going to say, “Those were the good old days!” Today, the word Analytics is certainly an overloaded term in the data world! It is used to define work done by data scientists to business analysts and from execution of sophisticated statistical algorithms to the use of simple visualization tools. Oh, and let’s not forget its synonymous use with the term “Big Data.” I wish I could muster up the same sense of euphoria for the overloaded term Analytics that I once felt for the use of overloaded functions in a class definition.
In this multi-part series of posts I will share practical knowledge about using data to gain insights that I have acquired during my career as a data and information architect. In addition, I will highlight the discipline that is required to create the supporting architecture and challenges encountered along the way when instantiating a comprehensive analytical platform. The first step on this journey is simply defining the consumers of information and understanding what they need. In short, the first commandment is simply: know thy information consumer. Figure 1 captures the essence of this concept by defining four distinct types of consumers of data — information consumer, information pro-consumer, data scientist, and machine.
One thing to note in Figure 1 is that the word Analytics is sparingly used. This was deliberate. All information presented has analytical value. More on that in the next post. For now, let’s just say before the word Analytics took on a life of its own, many of the terms above sufficed to describe how different consumers analyzed data and information. It was not long ago that the terms such as “slicing and dicing” and “drill down analysis” were commonly used to describe capabilities which allowed users to make important decisions. Today those capabilities are still an integral component of Business Intelligence and offered by many vendors as a standard offerings in their respective suite of products.
A few observations on information consumers in each category:
Information Consumers are generally the business users and executives that want access to timely and accurate reports and dashboards through intuitive and user friendly interfaces. The information consumed by this group of consumers needs to be highly accurate, trusted, and reproducible. Additional characteristics of information consumed by this set of users could be simple aggregated views of past sales or financial data for a specific region or a view of forecasted sales numbers generated through some sophisticated prediction algorithm.
Information Pro-Consumers are commonly known by more familiar terms such as business analysts and power users. This group is concerned with performing analysis on data and generally their focus is to understand the past in order to predict the future. In addition to accuracy and timeliness this group often demands low latency and high accessibility to data. More over, this group prefers to have multiple tools at their disposal to be able to perform aggregations, calculations, slicing, and dicing as well as ad hoc analysis on data.
Data Scientists do not need any introduction. Lately, much has been said and written about this set of users. A quick search on the web will prove that. But this series is not about defining who they are. Instead it is about what they would like to do with data. Regardless of whether these users are statisticians with computer science degrees or computational experts in some specific field, their needs revolve around having access to any and every piece of data — big or small, structured or unstructured. Often the discovery process and experimentation undertaken by this group may include diverse techniques ranging from simple data mining to applying various statistical algorithms to testing some hypothesis. In the end, applying sophisticated statistical techniques and/or machine learning algorithms to create insights is the primary motivation behind the work of this user community. A few posts from one of my colleagues are an interesting read on this particular data consumer type: What makes a data scientist – Part 1 & What makes a data scientist – Part 2.
Machines operate on data and need data to operate. Despite this fact, in the data world the needs of this voiceless group is often overlooked. With increased mechanization and automation, system-to-system communication is only increasing in importance and scale. Whether it is data collected through sensors and passed on to other systems for processing or data made available via APIs for general consumption by external users or partners, the fact remains that most companies are still trying to shore up their ability to service this important category of consumers.
In conclusion, the message is simple. It is critical to understand the needs of those you serve. Such a basic yet crucial piece of information should be a precursor to everything else that follows. Whether it is creating a reference architecture or standing up a scalable analytical platform, one thing is immediately apparent from Figure 1: the platform will need to cover use cases ranging from machine learning to ad hoc analysis, data analysis to sophisticated analytics, and from simple information consumption through APIs to machine-to-machine communication. A key mandate for a successful analytical platform is to make sure that the need of each consumer type is addressed holistically in helping them turn data into useful information and insights.