by Infogram
Create infographics

Talking with… Jorge Camões

Exclusive interview with one of the leading experts in visualization with Excel

June 25, 2013
(photo: Jorge Camões)
(photo: Jorge Camões)

If there’s one thing Tableau’s recent IPO showed is that the market for Business Intelligence and Analytics solutions is far from slowing down. However, we can’t talk about BI, Big Data, dashboards and graphic analysis without mentioning Microsoft Excel.

Why? Well, does anyone dares to dispute the fact that Excel is probably the most used software to create charts and graphics in the World?

Microsoft’s tool is part of the reality of many professionals around the world, from accountants to marketers, from scientists to engineers, from teachers to students. And despite the rise of a significant number of free data visualization and infographic creation tools out there – not to mention the paid solutions – , Excel still has, and will keep having, a key place for businesses and individuals.

Our guest in today’s interview is someone who has been teaching data visualization with Excel ‘for the masses’ for some time now. The Portuguese Jorge Camões, from Excelcharts, is one of the top references in this topic and he was kind enough to share with us a bit of his experience and opinions about data visualization in general.

Visual Loop (VL) – Jorge, tell us how was your first contact with Excel, and what captivated you in this tool.

Jorge Camões (JC) – The impact of the spreadsheet as a tool for school / work was still with Lotus 123. I think I made a pie chart on the first day. I’ve always enjoyed playing with numbers, so it was a kind of a revelation. From Excel I don’t have a precise memory of the beginning, possibly because I saw it as an evolution.

What fascinated me and still fascinates me, is its flexibility, and how it is often possible to find creative solutions to overcome its apparent limitations and to solve problems in a way that more structured tools don’t allow. With it I can, for example, do almost all the relevant charts types that interests me, which go far beyond the graphics library, which I admit is very poor. Of course, the flexibility has its costs in the form of a culture of silos, poorly structured data and data validation, which can be dangerous to the organization if not well regulated.

As an Excel user and knowing the practices of colleagues and clients, when I entered the information visualization field it was only natural to choose it as a tool – and also because many data visualization experts look at it with some indifference. I liked playing the role of the underdog :)

Many people linking to my blog feel the need to tell their readers that they should not be fooled by the name Excelcharts, the site is much more interesting than that, etc.. I find this notice amusing. Over time I was tempted to embrace other ‘sexier’ tools , but the mission of the blog is “information visualization for the masses,” and while the mission, and the market, does not change, Excel will be the tool that I use to demonstrate my ideas.

Excel is the primary visualization tool in organizations, and we can’t ignore that if we want to increase the graphical literacy of the people. For many of them, either Excel is the only tool they have access to, or are simply not available to learn a new tool (much less a programming language), or is the only format that they can share without many compatibility concerns.

This is the pragmatic angle that we can’t forget. From pragmatism and the allurement results the best tool to learn information visualization, in terms of cost / benefit analysis. Even its own defaults – which were very bad until Excel 2003 and have been improving -, help us, by providing a bad example, to better understand the principles and practice of visualization :).

But if a visualization takes a day to do in Excel and a few seconds with another tool, it’s necessary to assess whether the time has come to make other investments.

Excel is the primary visualization tool in organizations, and we can’t ignore that if we want to increase the graphical literacy of the people. For many of them, either Excel is the only tool they have access to, or are simply not available to learn a new tool (much less a programming language), or is the only format that they can share without many compatibility concerns.

VL – Much has changed since then. What surprised you the most over the years, in the evolution of Excel? And what disappointed you?

JC – We must not forget that Excel is a spreadsheet, not a visualization tool. The comparison with other dedicated tools is not completely fair.

I agreed with Stephen Few when he commented, regarding Excel 2007, that it was a missed opportunity. It was indeed an opportunity to clean the library of all the junk, introduce new graphics, facilitate the creation of dynamic graphs, improving the defaults, and generally have an attitude towards what is practiced, for example, by Tableau. Unfortunately, the marketing and immediate return perspectives won, but the introduction of ‘sparklines’ and the changes made ​​in Excel 2013 are steps in the right direction, although very late.

In addition, what disappointed me the most was keeping Excel exclusively as a desktop tool for too long, without the possibility of publishing online reports. This is also changing, but too slowly.

Vl – And the new GeoFlow, did you have the chance to try it?

JC – I haven’t tested it seriously yet, and I haven’t come up with a need that justified testing it. If the best it does is a 3D bar on top of a map, it doesn’t interest me. But I don’t like to form my opinion based only on promotional videos, and will test it.

VL – Speaking now a little about your work, Jorge, how did the idea of offering Excel courses focused on “business analytics”? And who is your target audience?

JC – The courses were created early in the blog’s existence, and are updated periodically, either for new versions of Excel, either to improve its usability, thanks to user’s feedback. I also make available new files regularly, that users can explore and understand from what they have learned in the courses.

I designed the courses for people who have some knowledge of Excel and use it as a tool in marketing, sales, finance. They are not for beginners, very advanced users or IT people.

VL – Please tell us a bit about your methodology and what your students will find in the various courses that are available.

JC – The courses reflect, in part, the way I like to learn: with an example that builds slowly until you reach the final product. The videos show all the steps, all the formulas and the result of these steps.

There are two courses and three dashboards and all start from the same data table and have relatively similar results. The goal was to keep something common, the data, so that the user focus on the different techniques that he can use: some do not care to record simple macros to get certain results, while others prefer to use formulas and still others prefer the PivotTables. This is also a proof of Excel’s flexibility.

VL – When speaking of Excel, most people associate it with spreadsheets, something ‘boring’. We know that is not so, and you’ve probably heard this a few times over the years, but how do you explain, briefly, to a ‘layman’ the real potential of this tool?

JC – With so many years of Excel, I don’t know if I can wean myself enough to answer this question. We’ll see.

The ‘mere mortals’ have a life much like an iceberg: a part, invisible to others, made ​​of boring but necessary things, like dumping the garbage and wash the dishes. The part of happiness and pleasure makes up for it all, but could not exist without this support.

It’s the same thing with visualization: a small part of that is the result of our work is supported by many hours, or days, fighting with erroneous, ill-structured, incomplete data.

If you are a lucky person who gets to live forever on the tip of the iceberg of life, or visualization, you’re likely to find Excel boring. I would too. However, if you’re a common mortal, Excel makes the ‘boring’ part of visualization more bearable, or even interesting. I know this isn’t really a very exciting argument, but it’s very much real.

The best part of Excel is the blank worksheet that opens endless possibilities. When I make interactive visualizations I like to see the graphics exactly where I want and I like to see them working and test them with users. From the moment we demonstrate that the concept works, it´s really irrelevant to me whether the final product will be done in Excel or another tool.

I like to give these two examples: I made a chart that I called “bamboo graphic “, which only works well with interaction, but I only implemented a basic interaction for personal consumption. Joe Mako liked the chart and made a fantastic version in Tableau, much better than mine in Excel. But in another case, I mimicked a graph of one of the founding fathers of data visualization, William Playfair, that would not be possible to make in Tableau.

Maybe the layman we’r trying to convince only sees the ‘boring’ part, but it is likely to be less annoying because of Excel. But if he realizes that he can’t escape it, whatever the tool, and that he can build upon it as much as their creativity goes, then he might look differently to Excel.

VL – From a Corporate Market point of view, it seems that we are only at the beginning of a new era where data visualization is becoming increasingly important in all aspects of business management. Everything is growing very fast. In this context, what are the main opportunities – and challenges – you see for your business?

JC – I will answer again with the pragmatic point of view of the average user. Let me give you another example: if I do a monthly sales report with 20,000 records, and due to a technological change, it rises to a million records, it creates a problem that IT solves easily. But creates a problem in the organizational culture that is more difficult to resolve: certain metrics lose reliability because the data are too detailed, specific habits and reaction monitoring must be implemented, etc..

The attitude when dealing with data must be different, and many organizations only see this change in quantitative terms, without realizing, or without bothering, with the qualitative dimension. This results frequently in analysis errors and lower returns than expected. It’s useless to think of “big data” if the end result is a 3D pie chart flying in a Powerpoint presentation.

The great challenge for organizations, and the opportunities this presents, is not in data visualization technology but the ability to keep more sophisticated employees processing data essential to their functions. I think it will be very difficult to exclude Excel from this scenario, but the way it’s used has to change. In many organizations, this change will occur when the IT department understands better the needs of that business, and users improve their perception of the IT concerns of IT and the improvements that that department can provide to their work.

Data visualization doesn’t live in an ethereal dimension, separated from the data. When there’s a large number of pie-charts in a report or a presentation, there is something wrong in the organization, and it’s not the pie. A pie chart is a potential symptom of lack of data analysis skills that have to be resolved. Visualization is one of the pieces of the puzzle, and it’s not even the most complicated.

In difficult times we live in, especially in Europe, investment in information is essential, but the organization must ensure that it has the necessary skills to increase the return on this investment. Visualization can help if there is a culture that uses data visualization as a decision support, and not only to illustrate some numbers and try special effects on Powerpoint.

The attitude when dealing with data must be different, and many organizations only see this change in quantitative terms, without realizing, or without bothering, with the qualitative dimension. This results frequently in analysis errors and lower returns than expected. It’s useless to think of “big data” if the end result is a 3D pie chart flying in a Powerpoint presentation.

VL – Moving away from Excel, some time ago we exchanged some messages on Twitter about the lack of data visualization books in Portuguese, and if there’s no market for at least some translations of important authors. Comment briefly on this subject, Jorge – without being limited to 140 characters.

JC – I don’t need much more than 140 characters: it’s a strange situation for which I don’t have an answer that satisfies me. This is a niche area, so it has some difficulty in gaining critical mass in Portugal, which has only 10 million inhabitants, but it surprises me a bit in Brazil, which has a recognized tradition in infographics. The fact that some of the most important authors, like Tufte and Stephen Few, have their own publishers and specific requirements of a book about data visualization may explain some of the difficulties in translating these works. I don’t know. Of course many of us have access to books in English, but not everyone does.

Alan MacEachren once said that data visualization would be very different if Bertin’s book, published in 1967 in French and only translated into English in 1983, had been translated earlier. It’s likely that the Portuguese-speaking world would be more open to data visualization if there were books in Portuguese.

In Portugal, there’s a book that is the result from the master thesis of Alexandrian Ana Silva that has been long sold out. A friend of mine, Jorge Caldeira, has a book on dashboards that basically follows what is understood as good practices in data visualization. In the case of Brazil,the book by Tattiana Teixera seems to be one of the only ones. Very little, for a market of 200 million Portuguese speakers.

VL – And what are your to bibliographic references, authors who have influenced you throughout your career?

JC – I confess that I have a closet with ‘skeletons’ of what should not be done in data visualization. Given that my entire career has been done around the development of information products, it’s a quite full closet.

But one day, as many of us, I stumbled on The Visual Display of Quantitative Information , by Edward Tufte. It was an intended ‘stumble’ but a spectacular one, and for life. After this ‘Big-Bang moment’ I found two ‘Bibles’, Jaques Bertin‘s Semiologie Graphique (if there is a father of data visualization, it’s him) and Information Visualization: Perception for Design, by Colin Ware. In any book that talks about viewing the “why” and not just the “how”, one of the most important chapters is the one about perception. This was the book I took to the Hospital while waiting for the birth of my children.

With Alan MacEachren‘s How Maps Work I learned a lot, for example, about the construction of the meaning of the message by the audience, but I felt too small and ignorant before such a brilliant book. It’s time to try to read it again.

In a post, I once compared Tufte to God and Stephen Few to Moses. Today I think I understand Stephen Few a little better and I no longer see him that way. He became a key reference in information visualization for businesses. I don’t totally agree with some of his ideas and I think he has an overly rational view of data visualization and effectiveness as a basic measure of its quality, but I understand that it makes sense in his perspective. I would like to discuss some ideas with him and I had some opportunities for this, but unfortunately circumstances didn’t allowed it .

I cant’ leave out Andreas Lipphardt, the founder of BonaVista Systems, who died in 2012. I used to speak with him frequently and he had very clear ideas of what data visualization should be in this field.

If I haven’t quit Excel as my first visualization tool, Jon Peltier is the one to blame. When I have a doubt I know I’ll find some forum with a good response – almost always by Jon.

VL – You were part of the first class of the MOOC taught by Alberto Cairo, which featured an impressive number of attendees. The second was even bigger. Are we living in a time of “data visualization euphoria ” or is the market really reaching a maturity point.

JC – First, I have a very minimalist concept visualization, which I define only as the transformation of quantitative data into visual stimuli, and that includes long strips of electrocardiograms to ‘data-art’. But within this field we have to define subgenres, such as infographics and business analytics, which have different goals, processes and tools. In literature, I can’t say that the story A is better than the poem B, I have to compare stories with stories and poems with poems, despite being all literature. The same applies in data visualization.

If, instead, we want to define data visualization from a common set of objectives and rules, the result of this interaction is a forced and unnatural struggle, in which will eventually prevail the law of the strongest – in this case, infographics. Infographics is only one form of information visualization, probably the most visible, but not the most practiced (think of the amount of Excel charts that are made ​​every day in organizations). As tempting as it is, is not suitable to bring infographics to the organizations, even in the canned format of 3D graphics that are sold as “professional looking and memorable.” This phrase is one of my pet peeves.

Since data visualization is such a new field, it’s natural that some growing pains arise, excessive promises and absurd discussions happen. I think the “infographic euphoria” was artificially fueled by the linkbait effect, which produced ‘bizarre things’ and gave infographics a negative connotation. Fortunately, this effect is now decreasing.

I believe that these incidents don’t hide the fact that data visualization, whatever its form, is a long-term movement. There are many questions that still don’t have adequate answers (which is the role of emotion?), the research on aesthetics and perception still has a lot to offer. Especially in data visualization for business, the chart is still the starting point. We have to think about what I like to call “graphic landscape “, which implies a higher and better integration of multiple visual components.

There’s a chart that I really like, the ‘Horizon Graphic, which allows a large degree of data compression and is a good example of the kind of research we should pursue.

With all this, I think the market still has a long way to mature, but each type of visualization has its rhythm, and it’s possible that the infographic is at a more advanced level. Having a helmsman like Alberto Cairo helps a lot.

Since data visualization is such a new field, it’s natural that some growing pains arise, excessive promises and absurd discussions happen. I think the “infographic euphoria” was artificially fueled by the linkbait effect, which produced ‘bizarre things’ and gave infographics a negative connotation. Fortunately, this effect is now decreasing.

VL – To close, what can we expect from you in the coming months? Something new that you’re working on, any new projects?

JC – Since there are no books in Portuguese about the data visualization area I work with, I decided to write one. I hope to finish it by September and plan to have only data from Portugal / EU and Brazil, because those are the realities closer to me. I would like to publish an issue for each country, but I have to study deeper the Brazilian statistical sources before deciding. It will also be a way to travel to Brazil, a country I haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit.

In addition to trying to answer this need, this book is also a response to my own need to understand if the scattered ideas that I keep feeding the blog with have consistency when organized in a unified speech with a beginning, middle and end. It’s been a fantastic journey of discovery that I recommend to everyone. Actually, I suggested on Twitter that all information visualization enthusiasts should expose their ideas into something longer than a post in a blog. I’m just following my own suggestion.

I see this book as the end of a cycle, whose results I would like to share in more regular training activities, both in Portugal and Brazil. It’s also likely that I learn new tools and seek for a new Mission for the blog.

VL – Jorge, thank you very much!

JC – Thank you!

We really thank Jorge for his time and detailed answers. You can keep up with his updates on Twitter (@camoesjo), and don’t forget to triple-bookmark Excel Charts.

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.

Follow:

Comments are closed.