Exploring and Understanding Your Data

Image: Table and contents, pivoted. By Tom Longley. Using a spreadsheet to pivot a table helps you see your data clearly and from different angles

Originally published on the School of Data's blog.

We’re pleased to announce a new course: A gentle introduction to exploring and understanding your data. This is Tactical Tech’s second course for the School of Data, building on our earlier course about cleaning data.

We probably shouldn’t tell you this, but the course title is a bit misleading. This course is actually a boot-camp on how to use a powerful spreadsheet feature called the pivot table. If we called it “Pivot table bootcamp” or “Pivot tables made easy” nobody would click the link. This is because they’ve seen the pivot table feature in their spreadsheet and they’ve been gripped by fear.

The pivot table has all the hallmarks of something that is not intended for civilian use:

  • a name that suggests you’re about to do something dangerous: flick safety catch, break seal, pivot table, adopt brace position.
  • a tedious interface of blank white rectangles, unhelpful labels and seemingly endless combinations of drop-down menus.
  • the initially inexplicable effect that it has on the data that you process with it.

We understand this fear, friends, and we’ve written this course to help you overcome it. Despite having the human friendliness of a sleep-deprived tiger, pivot tables will save you considerable time and effort in understanding and processing your data:

  • They quickly summarise a complete dataset, so you can see at a glance what’s in it.
  • Using something called cross-tabulation pivot tables re-arrange a dataset without changing the original data.
  • You can make lots of them at once, allowing you to see lots of different views of your dataset at the same time.
  • All the other useful features of spreadsheets, like sorting, filtering and formulae also work on datasets presented in pivot tables.

In this course, we gradually work through the four steps it takes to build pivot tables that answer questions about your data. We illustrate each step with lots of simple and more extensive examples that you can recreate from downloadable sample datasets.

We hope you find this course useful. Please tweet or leave comments here or on the course page to let us know how you get on, and what we can make better in the course. Now… get started with a gentle introduction to exploring and understanding your data.