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An online shopping cart I like

I really enjoyed this shopping cart at You pick up the images of the products and drop them into the cart. Makes everything easier. Let's hope other online retailers start working more like this.

Boarding Planes Back to Front is a Bad Idea

It turns out that back-to-front boarding of planes doesn't work as well as the free-for-all.

Analysis of airplane boarding via space-time geometry and random matrix theory
We show that airplane boarding can be asymptotically modeled by 2-dimensional Lorentzian geometry. Boarding time is given by the maximal proper time among curves in the model. Discrepancies between the model and simulation results are closely related to random matrix theory. We then show how such models can be used to explain why some commonly practiced airline boarding policies are ineffective and even detrimental.
A human-readable form is available at Obligatory data warehouse reference: Imagine if they could turn the planes 15 minutes faster. I think we have a long way to go in BI before we can offer decent modeling of problems like this.

Eating Indian Food Prevents Cancer

Some researchers surmise that it does, anyway. Good enough for me. I'm ignoring the comments pointing out life expectancy vs. onset of many cancer types, and socio-economic factors preventing diagnosis. Time to get lunch.

Interactive Graphs and Animation to Convey a Story

[undp data]To better convey the statistics in the Human Development Report, the people working on this provide all the data in graphical form on their website. What I like about their presentation is that almost all of the charts and graphs are either interactive, or animated along a time axis with a narrative to aid interpretation of the data.

This is a great example of the difference animation and interactivity can make when explaining complex data. To compare, read some of the report documents and then compare the experience of reading text and charts to the interactive presentations of that same data. You'll get a better feel for some of the data and what it represents after playing with it.

I'd like to see more of this kind of design facilitated in commercial BI products. As it stands, almost all the tools provide static pictures of the data and have minimal capabilities for animating the data and providing narrative. To do that, you usually end up exporting the data and reworking it in another environment.

I advocate this kind of interactive use of data by people inside companies, but one of the things I run into is that a lot of presentation and discussion happens in meetings. Most conference rooms are poorly equipped to deal with active data use. Maybe one room in a company has a projector hooked up to a computer, the computer is usually a refugee from the Visicalc era. So we get ten copies of charts and notes, and talk about them in cramped surroundings with one red-green tinted whiteboard with "do not erase" written on it. At least, that's how my meetings go.

Something else I like about the UNDP report website (apart from their goals) is the way they make the report, the interactive data and the raw data all available for review. It's rare to see any organization, particularly when involved with political issues, make all their data available for scrutiny.

Link to Human Development Report flash presentations

Open Source Statistics to Augment Your BI Tools

I find that periodically I need to do some analysis that requires more stats power than reporting tools like Business Objects or Cognos can provide. When I run into this it either means laborious spreadsheet development or hacking up a one-use program. So today I read up on the R Project for Statistical Computing.

R is an open source stats package that allows you to write statistical processing scripts and the like. You can do more than most BI products allow. In my experience, most BI purchases are aimed at query and reporting, not at the things we do seldom. That makes something like R really attractive.

R looks simple, but the examples I looked at did simple things. Years ago I worked with BMDP, SAS and SPSS to do more complex work. The cost and complexity of these tools is overkill for what many organizations need. I'm going to spend some time with R and see if it's worth adding to the open source BI toolbox to fill in the gaps around the usual BI tool deployments.

There's a good introductory article and mini-tutorial on R by Kevin Farnham at the O'Reilly ONLamp web site to give you a flavor of what R scripts are like and what you can do with it. If you like big lists there's always The Impoverished Social Scientist's Guide to Free Statistical Software and Resources. I like Timothy McSweeney's lists, but they aren't as useful for statisticians.

Nice Short Criticism of a Dashboard Vendor's Marketing

Claudia beat me to the punch with her good criticism of Dashboards: The Key to Breaking the Dependency on BI in the late November issue of DM Direct. I tend not to comment on things like this, but the truth here is that dashboard hype is breeding the vendors' downfall. The more of this type of veneer-based marketing they do, the worse the backlash will be against them.


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