Photo courtesy of Denys Nevozhai

James Dice, PE and Researcher at the National Renewable Energy Lab, applies data visualization tips from Google to stories about energy analytics.

Ouch. That deflated feeling when we uncover an insight using analytics and share it with our team or client and… nothing happens. Or we’re presenting a screenshot from the energy management information system (EMIS) and the audience is unresponsive or just doesn’t get it. Blank stares. Or you send a report from your EMIS and no one responds. I hate that feeling.

If you’re finding cool stuff with your analytics and it’s falling on deaf ears, it might be time to take a step back and consider this: EMIS is an exploratory analytics tool. We use it to find the needle in the haystack and to understand what the data is hiding in our buildings. But to get stuff done, we need to transition to explaining what the data means, including who, what, where, why, and how.

We go off track when we think it’s okay to share our insights in the same format we found them in. I’ve been there and I get it… we want to show evidence of all the work we did and all the data we analyzed. So we just dump the data on people, hope they get it, and expect change to occur. It doesn’t work like that.

First, people are already overloaded. They’re too busy to do the work we’re asking them to do to take an action. We need to reduce the friction. Second, people don’t take action with data alone. People don’t change the status quo with data alone. The main driver for decisions and actions and change is emotions. We need to turn data into information into insight into a “why” that someone cares about. We need to inspire people to action.

So how do we explain our insights to drive action? According to Cole Nussbaumer Knafflic, author of Storytelling with Data and former Google data visualization lead, we need to transition to explanatory data analysis. Here are the steps:

Who is your audience?

Be very specific, because everything below depends on who you’re talking to. You may even need different visualizations for different audiences or actions. By trying to communicate to everyone at once, you run the risk of communicating to no one well. For example, whoever approves your budget request is one audience. O&M staff is one audience. Occupants could be another audience.

What do you need them to know or do?

What would a successful outcome look like? By When?

Why should they care?

What is the audience’s stake in this? What do they care about? Sitting in their shoes for a moment, what emotions are involved for them? This includes negative emotions you want to avoid, such as an operator interpreting faults detected by the software as though you saying he’s doing something wrong.

How can you use data to make your point?

Storytelling with Data is great for this. Cole teaches you how to choose an appropriate chart type, eliminate clutter, focus attention where you want it, and tell an engaging story.

Once you’ve done the work, condense your message down for busy people into a Big Idea. A Big Idea must articulate your unique point of view, convey what’s at stake, and be a complete sentence. Here’s an example:

“A manual override to the AHU-4 chilled water valve to 50% open (as shown in the graphic) is causing a simultaneous heating and cooling fault and wasting $500 per month and could result in comfort problems; please approve the $1000 work order and schedule the replacement of the failed actuator so our team can earn an ARR of 600%.”

Here’s the unfortunate part: after all this work, you may need to take the data out of EMIS to get your point across. EMIS software vendors don’t tend to offer tools to support the quick creation of custom, decluttered, focused, and annotated views for interaction with multiple stakeholders. That may change in the future, but in the meantime, it might make sense to dust off ol’ Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint to tell a good story.


This article originally appeared on jamesdice.com. His weekly newsletter focused on energy efficiency, innovation, and technology keeps readers up to date on the industry and any new article he writes.

About James Dice

James is a Professional Engineer and researcher at NREL. He is an expert in data analytics software for smart buildings and author of the Nexus newsletter focusing on energy efficiency, innovation, and technology in buildings.

One Response

  1. Adam Landsman

    This is spot on! PulseIQ! frames their findings as “Actionable Energy Intelligence” and we provide quarterly reports geared to an executive audience. We tell them in a brief narrative what we’ve done, what we’ve found, and what they can save and they we lay out each energy conservation measure (ECM), what it will save and what action (and by whom) is needed to put it into action. But again, there’s no point to a report if you’re going to hand it over and walk away. You have to have a personal relationship with the decision makers and you have to offer to be a partner with them and their staff and vendors to help make the recommended changes happen. It’s part EMIS and part service, but it’s all about delivering the results. When talking to a prospective client it’s one thing to point to identified savings and another to point to ACTUAL savings rendered. That little bit of hand holding makes all the difference!

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