Data Exploration – Where to Start

This is part 2 of our series on Data Storytelling, previous segments are available in our archives.

Where Do We Start?

Every data exploration will start somewhere, and picking a good starting point is critical for saving time. Even a moderately complex business will have dozens of metrics with hundreds of dimensions, giving you thousands of different numbers to look at. [1] There isn’t enough time to look at all of them!

Where you start your exploration will depend a lot on why you are exploring your data in the first place.

1) If you are investigating a business incident…

… I hope whatever happened isn’t too bad. Luckily, you should have a smoking gun in the form of the metric which indicated the problem in the first place.

The first step is to do an impact analysis on that metric to understand all of the upstream changes that might affect it. This will help you reduce the number of places you need to look to only those that you know might have led to the change.

With your relationship model in hand (from your impact analysis), next you’ll want to do a component analysis of each of the parts of the model. This will help you figure out which segments and dimensions of those metrics are the most important and, hence, the places to start.  

2) If you are looking for new opportunities or hidden problems…

… you are doing a much less directed search of your data, and I applaud you! Too few companies have anyone who explores their data on a regular basis for hidden opportunities and problems, which can be the most valuable insights in your data.

It turns out the best approach here is not much different than when you are investigating an incident. Instead of starting with a specific metric, you start with all of the key metrics for your business and investigate their components. It will take more time, but if there are important insights in your data, the chances are they are somehow related to those key metrics.

This will, of course, mean that you are likely going to do many times more work than you do investigating an incident, but the good news is that you hopefully don’t have a deadline. Better yet, you might avoid having incidents altogether if you find problems early.

Now that we know where to start, tomorrow we’ll cover how to find insights!


[1] If any of this seems familiar, it’s because we covered Root Cause Analysis just a few months ago.


Quote of the Day: “In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.” ― Ansel Adams