New Ways to Visualize Data

The versatility of spreadsheets is beyond question, but for some purposes, numbers don't tell the story nearly as well.
Connie WinklerOctober 19, 2004

Maps are back. Many companies are looking for ways to cope with information overload, and while dashboards and other techniques continue to gain in popularity, maps are proving surprisingly versatile as well, even for deskbound workers.

“Academic research shows that we can’t keep more than seven data points in our head at one time,” says Dan Vesset, research director for business analytics at research firm IDC. “If you have a table with more than seven rows and multiple columns, you very quickly get lost.”

The versatility of spreadsheets is beyond question, but when a company needs to locate a new store or identify the site of a power outage, numbers don’t tell the story nearly as well. “With some applications, you can look at a spreadsheet all day long, but rows and columns will never show you the pattern that emerges on a map instantly,” says Robert Hazelton, technical director at Information Builders Inc., a business-intelligence software company in New York.

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According to IDC, the market for interactive data visualization tools will grow by 7.5 percent a year through 2007, reaching almost $7 billion. The category includes software ranging from visually-intensive engineering applications and image editing software to geospatial information management tools and animation software. Also included is a segment of business intelligence that brings data visualization to executives, line-of-business managers, and analysts. It provides a number of ways to present data visually, such as maps, diagrams, stoplights, flashing alerts, decision trees, and dashboards. Several kinds of business-intelligence software vendors are adding visualization, frequently through licensing agreements with niche providers that do business with the governmental, scientific/engineering, and academic communities.

David Lewis learned fast when he launched both the marketing and information technology departments at ING Direct in 2000. Now one of the fastest-growing U.S. banks, with more than 2 million customers and more than $30 billion in assets, ING Direct initially let departments choose their own software for reporting and other needs. As a result, producing monthly finance reports required two or three full-time employees who could look across disparate systems and pull numbers together.

That made it difficult to understand performance metrics, so the company switched to an enterprise database from Oracle and business-intelligence software from Cognos. The latter includes a dashboard, which provides a flexible way to display those metrics visually and customize them for every department. “This allows the people who best understand a given type of data to analyze it easily,” says Lewis.

Dashboards can link cause-and-effect and other relationships between numbers in a way that traditional reports can’t. “A supply-chain dashboard might show that inventory is low in a certain area, yet sales are good,” says John Kreisa, a group marketing manager at Business Objects, another business-intelligence/dashboard supplier. “So you know right away that you need to do something about it.” (For a further discussion of data visualization, read “More Map, Less Quest.”)

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