Data Visualization

Beyond the spreadsheet lie a host of technologies that do more than simply crunch the numbers.
John VerityJanuary 20, 2004

Companies are always looking for answers. Maybe it’s the looking that counts.

Although the computer is often compared to the human brain, the brain has something that almost all computers lack: sight. After all, our eyes are merely the interface between brain and world, a hard-wired conduit for processing images.

For the computer-brain metaphor to really work, therefore, computers have to become more visual. And they are. This should come as good news to all computer users, but in some ways, it is of particular interest to finance departments and others that too often must deduce patterns and trends from rows and columns of numbers. If a pie chart is worth a thousand words, what value might be placed on software that can present at a glance complex situations that would defy more-traditional presentation?

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Blending equal parts art and science, the technologies of data visualization are flowering as never before, benefiting business and science alike. Established software makers such as Information Builders and Cognos have been improving their business-intelligence tools’ ability to chart complex data, while several start-up companies are devoting themselves to developing entirely new visualization techniques.

One of the major challenges developers face is how to provide visual continuity, to enable users to click their way through a large set of multivariate data (that is, data has many subtypes of information associated with it) without losing their place and without the distractions and interruptions of opening dialog boxes or waiting for entire Web pages to refresh. “Interactive visualizations can give users an exploratory sense of their data,” says David Temkin, co-founder and CTO of Laszlo Systems. “The analysts can build a rich mental model of what their data means, expanding and inflating their view as they wish.” Laszlo’s own software harnesses XML, server-side Java, and Macromedia’s popular Flash technology to bring the rich, fluid look and feel of the best graphical user interfaces to standard Web pages.

At their best, visual presentations of data can help managers not only explore much more data but also grasp the relationships between more variables than is generally possible with tabular reports or bar charts. By plotting retail purchase data as an interactive, three-dimensional “cloud,” for instance, one gas-station chain recently stumbled onto a set of highly profitable customers that it had never recognized—namely, not-so-wealthy drivers buying lots of premium gasoline to keep their old beater cars on the road. “We literally saw a cluster in the background of the diagram. It was a group of customers that nobody would have guessed existed,” says Ken Collier, a senior BI consultant at Cutter Consortium who works with the retailer.

Likewise, Harrah’s Entertainment visualizes mountains of data to determine “the coin,” or money, spent by different groups of customers—male VIP club members ages 35 to 50, for instance—at its two dozen Las Vegas properties. By giving visitors a unique magnetic-stripe card, the company is able to collect detailed data about their activities at its 40,000 slot machines and hundreds of gaming tables and betting counters. Then, using software called SeePower provided by locally based Compudigm International, tens of thousands of data points are displayed in the form of a contoured, color-coded “heat map” that appears translucently over the appropriate casino floor plans. Red may indicate high spending, while blue may show the cooler, less-active parts of a casino. Time-coded sequences of such data can even be shown in animated form to reveal the paths that certain visitors tend to follow during the course of their stays.

New visualization algorithms and techniques are being developed with corporate users in mind. With its VisualMiner software, for instance, Fujitsu has come up with a way to show the relationships between many different dimensions of data in a single diagram. Users can drag and drop the variables they’re interested in and immediately see any correlations that may exist. Actuality Systems has developed a device that displays data as a remarkably realistic-looking, three-dimensional object within a sort of crystal ball. And Infommersion’s new software enables Excel spreadsheet models to be converted into “live,” interactive PowerPoint slides: pull on a slider bar indicating SG&A costs, for instance, and a gauge showing net profits will move accordingly. If that doesn’t keep a finance audience attentive, what will?