looking at numbers

Looking At Numbers: 2nd ed: Where Do Numbers Come From?

Before any project can be attempted you must assemble the materials. If you’re cooking you need ingredients, if you’re crafting you need materials and if you’re playing with stats you’re going to need numbers.

The group of numbers you use in stat analysis is called a data set. Data sets can be compiled from a variety of sources in the name of an endless assortment of informational pursuits. On one end of the spectrum there are small sets quantifying, for example, a small business’s marketing expenses while on the other you have extremely large collections like the US Census. The numbers contained within these sets are the colors with which you will use to paint your greater picture.

If you’re attempting to get a better sense of your business’s operations – past, present, and future – then your data set will be mostly made up of information derived from your own records. If you’re attempting to determine where your company fits within a larger context or simply conducting wider ranging research [industry, market, location, etc] you will need to find bigger data sets.

Finding the numbers can be a bit tricky if you don’t know what you’re looking for. So, I have broken the search for numbers down into small, medium and large-scale resources.


These are resources that you can refer to if you’re numerical pursuits are mostly centered on your company:

Quickbooks Report Library: This is just an example of one financial tracking program but whichever you use to maintain your company’s finances should have a number of reports through which they can run the numbers you enter. From marketing expenses spent in the first two months of 2003 compared to those spent in the first two months of every subsequent year to a full analysis of your company’s financial status these reports can prove invaluable when trying to get a grip on what is working and what needs attention.

Google Analytics: This tool will allow you to track and measure the traffic on your website or blog. Any analytical tool will work but ones that provide you understandable and clear reports are best for beginners.

Survey Monkey: If you need to get more specific feed back you can organize your own survey to send to customers, employees, vendors, etc to get targeted feedback on your company.


These can be used if you want to take a few steps back and examine your/your company’s work in a wider context. If you’re looking to expand, change your product/service mix or simply get inspired a greater perspective can be useful.

Industry Analysis Each industry has at least a few institutions –often associations- dedicated to gathering information and providing analysis. These can give you vital information on the state of your industry and where it is projected to go. These reports are pricey endeavors so be prepared to spend some money. But, if you do your research on the quality and reputation of the reporters it can be an excellent investment.

The Data Market Place: This is a great repository to solicit others to do research for you. Or, if they already have the research this is a great way to see what sets are already out there. Again, it costs some money and it is in your best interest to do some research but it is a great option for more obscure data searches.


These are humongous data sets often amassed over long periods of time and intended to support trend and historical analysis on, in some cases, a global scale.

US Census Results: Every ten years the US gathers information on residents – regardless of legal status- to get a benchmark for myriad statistical points within our country. If you have the time to sort through the massive amounts of information you can find some great data sets to use for your business.

Pew Research: There are many large institutions that conduct unbiased wide ranging researches. They can be a good resource for information you may not even know you needed. Abstracts may be free/cheap but the full reports will cost you. If you want targeted information it would be wise to research PAC’s or other issue focused institutions.

These options should provide you a good jumping off point. But, if you are simply interested in exploring some data sets and playing around with numbers I would suggest James Davenport’s Assortment of interesting data sets. They are user friendly and rather interesting.

Now go get computing. 

Looking At Numbers

I’m going to be honest, gathering and analyzing statistics is not my favorite way to pass an afternoon. I’m much more of an abstract creative thinker who can spend hours pouring over philosophy theories or days nose-in-book reading about history and art. When it comes time to really get into the numbers though I usually find myself quick to boredom. Don’t get me wrong, I fully appreciate the power and knowledge that lies in data sets or analytics. I’ve seen “number people” transfixed by the contents of a spreadsheet and even listened with the utmost respect to their impassioned explanation of a statistical regression. It’s just that, when left to my own devices, I usually skip over the data heavy parts of articles or texts. Professionally this is seldom an option, which is why I’ve decided that 2010 will be the year I really embrace numbers.

With every article I write and presentation I create I realize that by foregoing in depth – or in some cases any - statistical support I am doing my theories and observances a disservice in two major ways: first, I’m ignoring a large portion of my audience who are “number people;” second, I’m not providing the full case in support of my theories/assertions. So, I’ve begun to seek out resources for cost effective informative reports, data laymen and fine examples of stat applications to start expanding my use of numbers. To keep the learning going I’ll be sharing my number lessons with you over the next few months.

To ease my way into this new way of thinking I decided to start where art and numbers meet, in the world of “infographics.” The practice of using graphics to represent collected data sets has grown in popularity as we’ve become an increasingly image oriented culture. As graphic icons have been standardized and the practice of graphic design more standardized(w/c). Combining simple visuals with assorted number sets has proven to be a very effective way to serve a number of purposes. Among the more successful uses I have found include:

Using imagery to emphasize quantity or the relationship between comparative data.

The growth of Crayola colors since their introduction

*from http://flowingdata.com

To present an alternative perspective on information.

A visual interpretation of the information held in bar codes

* from  http://flowingdata.com

A plot of Bach's Three Goldberg Variations

*from The Shape Of Song

See also: A Visual History Of The US

Use numbers to dictate the direction of a piece of art.

A map of a website's traffic.

*from http://designweenie.com

Clearly these aren’t the pie charts and bar graphs of yore but they can be found in many of the same places: reports, slide presentations, textbooks etc. As the design quality of these representations have become more intricate and informed they have evolved into standalone pieces of art. The melding of the world of art with the realm of numbers is a very encouraging place to start this exploration and I’m looking forward to finding out where else it shall lead.