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Data Visualization: Why a Picture Is Worth $3 Billion

Apr 29, 2019

By Tony Vu, Treasurer, Miami-Dade County Public Schools

Data visualization isn’t easy. Why? First, let’s define data. I like the definition that data is anything that can be stored electronically. Data can be raw or transformed but either way, data by itself is not very useful.

Once we make connections between data, we have information. Information is the relationship between various data or data sets. Information is a little bit more useful, but as we analyze information, we can recognize patterns in the information. These patterns, and recognizing them, are knowledge. Data visualization is a mechanism that can help us see the patterns.

In a 2017 article, Bryan Lapidus, FP&A, AFP’s director of FP&A practice, wrote an article describing advanced Excel skills required for FP&A. These include data and data analysis, building models and reporting. They build upon each other and can take years to acquire and practice. One reason is because of the relationship between data, information and knowledge. Data visualization is part or an extension of the reporting skillset that also needs the touch of an artist. Luckily, most finance professionals already have at least some of the skills needed to create data visualizations.

Data Visualization in Action

At Miami-Dade County Public Schools, there is an abundance of data, including financial and treasury-related sets. Some of the data is connected and turned into information for financial statements and board reports. Turning the information into knowledge was part of the goal of creating data visualizations.

For example, the district was in the middle of a $1.2 billion general obligation program. Five series of bonds had already been issued. When should the next bond sale take place? Data included the current cash expenditures and the bond sale statistics. Connecting and analyzing the cash expenditures with dates creates information on the rate of flows that can be projected into the future. Examining the relationship and pattern of bond sales with the rate of expenditures reveals actionable knowledge of when to best issue the next series of general obligation bonds.

Putting the data visualization together gives treasury an easily digestible tool to explain all of the above. At AFP 2019, we’ll review in detail how we created the data visualization.

Remember: things don’t get easier, we get better.

Don’t miss MDCPS’ session, A Picture is Worth $3 Billion: Applications for Data Visualization at AFP 2019. Register for AFP 2019 here.