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Visualization Broadens Business Intelligence's Appeal

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Posted May 2, 2012 By Drew Robb     Feedback

Visualization is taking business intelligence out of the realm of specialists and making it more accessible to "average" users.

It makes sense that interest in business intelligence visualization is increasing, given the highly visual nature of hot trends in both consumer and enterprise technology: big screens, HD, iPads, eReaders and smartphones. Everyone wants data served up in high resolution, with sharp color and the best graphics.

Executives are beginning to grasp the appeal of visualization and putting it on their enterprise business intelligence roadmaps. As reported in Datamation, recent research by Dresner Advisory Services found advanced visualization ranked as the fourth most important technology in organizations’ business intelligence strategies, trailing dashboards, end user self-service and data warehousing

Some 400 IT and business unit managers responding to a survey found advanced analytics, which Dresner Advisory Services founder Howard Dresner defines as "extensive use of color, size, shape, 3D, texture, motion, etc. to convey meaning," more compelling than Big Data, the cloud, social media analytics and other trendy business intelligence technologies.

On a rising scale of importance, from one to five, respondents gave advanced visualization a 3.8. Dashboards, respondents' top priority, rated only slightly higher at 4.15.

Several experts interviewed by Enterprise Apps Today note that visualization helps broaden the appeal of business intelligence by making it easier for "average" users and not just BI specialists to identify patterns and trends in data.

Making It Easy to Spot Meaning

“Data visualization helps us quickly grasp both patterns and outliers, via both general-purpose techniques and tools that are specialized for particular information types and business purposes,” said Seth Grimes, owner and principal consultant for Alta Plana Corporation, a business analytics consulting firm. “Visualization has always been important in BI -- although never more than now -- because it helps us tease business insights from data and effectively communicate what we see.”

The big news in visualization, he said, involves mash-ups, online tools, visual interfaces and immersive experiences, as well as enhanced reality. Mash-ups, for instance, join information from multiple sources, typically involving geographic and graphical presentations. The resulting visualizations are often produced and published online.

Grimes calls attention to a class of online visualization tools pioneered by IBM's Many Eyes , with Tableau Public  a commercialized example and Weave, the Web-based Analysis and Visualization Environment as an open-data oriented approach. Like the iPhone, visual interfaces allow users to guide analyses via clicks and gestures rather than commands and keystrokes.

“This technology helps a spectrum of data users create graphical magic,” Grimes said. ”Enhanced reality is the future, already possible to an extent via our mobile devices, where we're presented with situationally relevant information that enables better-informed decision making.”

As well as those named above, Grimes listed other visualization innovators such as QlikTech, the open-source R project, Tibco Spotfire, Advizor Solutions, various Google API-fronted services, Miner3D, NodeXL, Palatir, Panopticon and Tom Sawyer Software.

Business Intelligence to Bridge Human Machine Gap

Popular media tends to give the impression that machines are far more advanced than man. But this is far from the case in reality. Don Campbell, CTO of IBM Business Analytics, gives the example of the human visual and perception system, which is far superior to anything manufactured to date.

“Not only can it distinguish information with high fidelity, it can also identify relationships across multiple dimensions,” said Campbell. “This can be a real advantage when trying to understand complex business data faster and more deeply than in the past. Business intelligence tasks can benefit greatly from the use of information visualization techniques.”

Like Grimes, Campbell said visualization is moving from the world of trained specialists and becoming accessible and applicable to every worker. Due to the wide availability of ever-improving graphical hardware, more complex visualizations are appearing. Tablets and smartphones can bring these visualizations to mobile platforms.

Visualizations can be viewed in traditional 2D presentations or in 3D. Each level of complexity allows another aspect or dimension of the information to be described. Even the representation itself (a map for geographic content, for example) can aid in understanding the data, far beyond a table or a spreadsheet, Campbell said.

Instead of touting one vendor over another, Campbell stressed that visualization is a technique rather than a product offering.

“You don't want to be immersed in a business intelligence task and have to switch to a different product to visualize it,” he said. “Visualization can be a powerful presentation and information consumption interface, but it doesn't stand on its own.”

What is IBM doing about all this? The Cognos business intelligence strategy, he said, is to provide a combination of rich data infrastructure with analytic processing, easy-to-use navigation and task-appropriate presentation. Looking ahead, he believes representations of working business models will be visible and easy for users to manipulate.

“Eventually, holographic displays will allow us to 'walk around' a business problem while we work on it,” Campbell said.

DIY Business Intelligence

Brian Brinkmann, senior director of Product Marketing at MicroStrategy, sees visualization as a key enabler of self-service business intelligence.

“A complaint levied at BI tools was that they were too hard to use,” he said. “These new visualization tools make data discovery simple, fast and fun, and users are no longer relying on IT to create reports or analysis for them.”

With the IT or business intelligence analyst bottleneck removed, a broader group of users can upload data or point to a database, let the tools recognize what’s in it and begin exploration using more advanced visualizations. Instead of being mired down in the minutia, visualizations help users spot trends, problems, patterns, relationships or outliers.

“Data visualizations are a faster way to understand large sets of data, and they appeal to a new group of BI users, specifically business people,” said Brinkmann. “It is much simpler for most people to process large amounts of data in pictures rather than in rows and columns or tabular format.”

His company offers data visualization through its MicroStrategy Report Services product and Visual Insight capabilities. This includes interactive dashboards and visual data discovery. Meanwhile, he said, the company continues to invest heavily in this area. So where are we heading?

“Visualizations will begin to represent more complex relationships associated with advanced data mining and predictive calculations such as regressions, clustering and affinity analysis,” Brinkmann said. “The visualizations will be able to depict clearly in pictures what are complex to calculate mathematically. This will further allow business people to use data to make better decisions even without having to understand the complex math required.”

Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. Currently living in California, he is originally from Scotland, where he received a degree in geology and geography from the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).

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