Now You See It

Graphs, maps, animations, and other visual displays of information may succeed where spreadsheets fail.
Scott LeibsJuly 1, 2002

Like counting on one’s fingers, data visualization is neither new nor (necessarily) complicated. The computer-based forms most commonly used in business today — the executive “dashboard,” or scorecards of various sorts — can trace their roots back at least 20 years. In 1786, Scottish economist William Playfair noted that mercantile transactions in money … (are) easily represented in drawing” and in fact he believed his time-series and bar charts would aid comprehension and retention.

But if data visualization isn’t new, it certainly has yet to reach full flower. For most companies, “data” means numbers, and analysis is a matter of sifting through and manipulating many numbers to get to one that’s meaningful. No one wants the bottom line expressed as a three-dimensional pie chart when a simple dollar value will do.

But companies constantly lament that they collect far more data than they can analyze, and designers of visualization systems welcome that challenge. “Our goal,” says Andrew Cardno, CEO and founder of Compudigm International Ltd., “is to present 10,000 data points in a form that people can comprehend in three seconds or less.”

4 Powerful Communication Strategies for Your Next Board Meeting

4 Powerful Communication Strategies for Your Next Board Meeting

This whitepaper outlines four powerful strategies to amplify board meeting conversations during a time of economic volatility. 

In fact, visualization not only aids analysis, it can, at times, replace it. “If you roll data from several sources into a line graph and it’s pointing sharply down,” says Jim Bell, director of corporate finance at Huntsman, “you know things are bad. You see that there’s trouble without having to analyze anything.”

That gets at the heart of the argument for greater use of visualization: It taps the brain’s hard-wired ability to respond to visual stimuli. “If the goal is survival,” says Andrew Lo, director of the Laboratory for Financial Engineering (LFE) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “then what is more essential than being able to tell if the thing you see on the horizon is friend or foe, something to pursue or to flee? Evolution has made us all very visually attuned.”

Even a spreadsheet-loving analyst, Lo says, may find the data pertaining to a given phenomenon too overwhelming to comprehend. And for employees in sales, marketing, and many other functions, a quick pictorial read of key data may be all they need. Companies that have invested in data visualization say that one key selling point is that it requires little or no training.

Every Picture Tells a Story

While the most elaborate uses of data visualization are typically found in life sciences and engineering environments, the technology may soon provide useful new ways to confront financial data as well.

At the LFE, researchers have built a visualization tool that aids risk analysis by representing the mean, variance, and liquidity of various global investments as a three-dimensional world that, according to Lo, resembles the Sydney Opera House.

An analyst can fly through this visual representation and see “hot spots” of unacceptable risk, which would stand out as areas of intense red, say, in a generally blue landscape. As with most visual representations of data, the user could then pause and drill down, assessing just what makes a particular investment so risky.

Another project entails the creation of a system that models what financial traders do all day. Lo explains that traders typically serve long apprenticeships as they learn to look at dozens of different data points on various monitors and derive intelligence from them.

The LFE hopes to represent the text and numbers that traders stare at all day as icons or simple graphical objects that have a more immediate, intuitive meaning — one that, says Lo only half joking, would allow a reasonably bright 13-year-old to be a trader. “Something like that,” he says, “could change the perception of visualization as being something more than simply a ‘nice-to-have.’”

Lo is alluding to the fact that Corporate America has, for the most part, turned a blind eye toward data visualization. For every company such as London-based pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline, where, according to site head and director of ChemInformatics Frances Stewart, “employees love to play with it so much that we can’t pour the data into it fast enough,” there are a dozen others that see it as a frill, or worse.

“It can be like going to Las Vegas,” complains Thomas Weatherford, CFO of San Jose, California-based Business Objects, a business-intelligence software maker that does in fact offer some basic forms of visualization and is rolling them out to its own finance department now. “Simple visualization, as in a dashboard, can be useful,” he says, “but the underlying analytics matter more than the presentation.”

Color My World

At Beverage Can Americas Co. in Chicago, a division of London-based Rexam Plc, Paul E. Martin, vice president and CIO, believes in data visualization. But he agrees that it doesn’t have to get fancy.

As part of a business process “E-enablement” project, his firm is rolling out executive dashboards and scorecards to thousands of employees. Each worker sees a handful of metrics that pertain to his or her job, which are represented as green, yellow, or red icons depending on whether they are satisfactory, borderline, or subpar.

That’s not the sort of deployment that will prompt workers to play with the data for hours, but Martin says it’s proving invaluable. “Before we rolled out visualization as part of this effort,” he says, “we would have had to calculate these metrics offline, using spreadsheets, faxes, and pulling numbers from people’s heads.”

Now data is pulled from various transactional systems. It’s then crunched to give a quick visual read on, say, inventory levels, raw-materials prices, order volumes, quality-control checks, and so on.

The system relies on software from Burlington, Massachusetts-based Cognos Inc., which has found success with the Visualizer component of its business intelligence suite.

But Don Campbell, Cognos’s vice president of product innovation and technology, admits that data visualization is still something of a secret. “After companies use it, they wonder how they got along without it,” he says. “But it’s rare that people will ask for it unless they’ve seen it somewhere else.”

Almost all software companies in the business intelligence, budgeting/forecasting, and data analytics markets offer at least rudimentary visualization: graphs, dashboards, scorecards, color-coded metrics, and the like. Cognos also offers animation, multimetric displays, and mapping, and smaller companies such as Spotfire, Visual Insights, and Illumitek have put more elaborate forms of visualization at the center of their offerings.

Compudigm’s see-Power product transfers not only structured data, such as financial information, into pictures, but unstructured data as well. Baltimore-based Cedar Enterprise Solutions Inc. uses Compudigm’s software as part of one of its solutions to, for example, create a picture of media coverage of a company, enabling that company to see whether public perception matches the reality the company hopes to project.

Compudigm got its start in the gaming industry, helping casinos understand traffic patterns so that slot machines could be optimally placed. Since then it has expanded into financial services, telecom, and retail, in each case helping companies make sense of the reams of customer data they collect but often fail to use.

One area ripe for data visualization may be human resources. Compudigm maintains that its software can take thousands of résumés and overlay data points such as salary and expenses to help companies spot patterns.

Is there, for example, unusually high turnover in a given function, and does that correlate to how much is being spent (or not being spent) on training? Visualization seems best suited to those scenarios in which decisions depend on a grasp of qualitative and quantitative data spread across different computer systems within a company.

But visualization can also play a role in making relatively simple information accessible at a glance. Ambient Devices offers a range of wireless devices, from pens and wristwatches to a desktop “orb,” that light up, change color, or otherwise signal a change in the status of information. From stock portfolio performance to the health of an aging parent or the score of the big game, the devices can be configured by users to give an instant read on the matter at hand.

Visualization is also carving out a middle ground between the simplicity of executive dashboards (and orbs) and the complex rendering of scientific or cross-functional data.

Cary, North Carolina-based business-intelligence software maker SAS Institute Inc., for example, produces “strategy maps” that correlate strategic objectives with hard numbers, showing how internal processes measure up to predetermined goals. That visualization capability is part of its SAS Strategic Performance Management software, which is designed to support balanced-scorecard and similar enterprisewide strategy efforts.

“As businesses increasingly focus on processes,” argues Jonathan Hornby, a member of the company’s worldwide marketing strategies group, “the easiest way to see them and communicate them is with maps.”

He points to a September 2000 article in the Harvard Business Review by Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, both well known for their work on the concept of balanced scorecards, which noted that such maps give employees “a clear line of sight” as to how their jobs are connected to the organization’s goals.

Embedding such maps into software that integrates and analyzes data from many sources can be useful, and so intuitive that employees who use it may not even stop to appreciate the value that visualization brings.

“On the one hand, visualization is fighting for recognition at a time when budgets have flat-lined,” says Robert Moran, vice president and managing director for data knowledge and analytics at Boston-based consulting firm Aberdeen Group. “On the other hand, the technology tends to get built into various products and is thus taken for granted.”

Despite that, Moran believes that visualization will soon get its due, thanks largely to the need to react quickly to an expanding torrent of real-time data.

Productivity is also an issue. At LaSuisse Insurance in Laussane, Switzerland, Gabriel Fuchs, a manager in sales and marketing, says that visualization software (from Spotfire Inc.) is ideal for employees who aren’t particularly computer-savvy. “But the people who really love it,” he says, “are the hardcore spreadsheet users, because they can do in two seconds what used to take them 20 minutes.”

Visualization, it seems, has put things in a whole new perspective.

You Oughta Be in Pictures

As beneficial as it may be to see data, it may be even more helpful to walk around and touch it.

Mountain View, California-based Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) offers, as part of a broader line of visualization technologies, “Reality Centers,” specially equipped rooms that allow groups of employees to interact with data in a hands-on way. Powered by SGI Onyx supercomputers, special projectors display the data, in some cases as stereo graphics images, and employees don eyewear and other paraphernalia developed for virtual-reality applications.

Popular among scientists and engineers for collaborative design and decision-making, the technology may be overkill for a spreadsheet-weary CFO, but this same visualization-processing power is used by financial-services firms and stock exchanges. SGI’s “visual area networking” technology takes this visualization one step further by allowing universal access and control of the supercomputer from any device on the network, including laptops and, in the future, even PDAs.

Another corporate adaptation of virtual-reality technology comes from a San Francisco company called Pulse, which offers “Veepers,” or virtual personalities — software that brings a human element to Web sites…sort of.

The software creates a videolike three-dimensional interactive character based on a single photograph; this Veeper then becomes a customer-service rep or a corporate trainer, or plays some other role depending on the mission of the Web site. The software was initially used to bring animated versions of cartoon characters and celebrities like Jay Leno, Kermit the Frog, and Britney Spears to life on TV network Web sites. That proved a finite market, but the company saw plenty of opportunity in Corporate America.

Pulse has signed deals with IBM and Microsoft, which apparently see great potential in bringing an “emotive interface” to Web-site design. Anything that usurps the “smiley” has to be counted as a good thing.