Saturday, February 27, 2016

Spreadsheets: The Original Analytics Dashboard · Simply Statistics

Steven Levy wrote the following about the original granddaddy of spreadsheets, VisiCalc. 

Already, the spreadsheet has redefined the nature of some jobs; to be an accountant (statistician) in the age of spreadsheet (big data) program is — well, almost sexy. And the spreadsheet (big data) has begun to be a forceful agent of decentralization, breaking down hierarchies in large companies and diminishing the power of data processing.

There has been much talk in recent years about an “entrepreneurial renaissance” and a new breed of risk-taker who creates businesses where none previously existed. Entrepreneurs and their venture-capitalist backers are emerging as new culture heroes, settlers of another American frontier. Less well known is that most of these new entrepreneurs depend on their economic spreadsheets as much as movie cowboys depend on their horses.
Simply Statistics suggested that you replace "accountant" with "statistician" and "spreadsheet" with "big data" and "you are magically teleported into 2016."

Of course, the combining of presentation with computation comes at a cost of reproducibility and perhaps quality control. Seeing the description of how spreadsheets were originally used, it seems totally natural to me. It is not unlike today's analytic dashboards that give you a window into your business and allow you to "model" various scenarios by tweaking a few numbers of formulas. Over time, people took spreadsheets to all sorts of extremes, using them for purposes for which they were not originally designed, and problems naturally arose.
So now, we are trying to separate out the computation and presentation bits a little. Tools like knitr and R and shiny allow us to do this and to bring them together with a proper toolchain. The loss in interactivity is only slight because of the power of the toolchain and the speed of computers nowadays. Essentially, we've brought back the Data Processing department, but have staffed it with robots and high speed multi-core computers.
Other tools include IPython Notebook, and GitHub. Also importantly, we may need an alternative to the ubiquitous Excel. More and more computational powers are added to it in each update. What we need is a strip-down spreadsheet editor with some basic data validation functionalities, but no data analysis / visualization  built-in. A software package force us to make distinction between data input and processing/analysis/presentation.
VisiCalc running on Apple IIc, 1983. Photo by Mark Mathosian.

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