The prospect is still enticing after years of promises—a constantly updated global view of your organization’s data, infinitely zoomable and sliceable and presented in visually compelling graphics. That ideal, whether invoked in the marketing of business intelligence dashboards or data warehouses, is always a ways off, but data visualization and visual analytics software offer an increasingly broad range of users a way to explore and analyze large swaths of data, run what-if scenarios and otherwise interpret and manipulate complex information. Until recently, this was the purview of experts.
This proliferation of relatively easy-to-use tools can help businesses monitor key performance metrics, better understand their customers, respond to competitive pressures more quickly, and bolster their decision making and planning.
Data visualization and visual analytics applications vary from stand-alone to integrated components of business intelligence or enterprise application suites and together address the discovery, querying, analysis, reporting and presentation of data from a variety of sources, including structured and unstructured data. They allow users to view large datasets at a glance, to discern details, relationships and trends that might not be apparent in tables or unstructured text. Data visualization, if done right, taps human vision and cognition to present data in ways that quickly convey scope, connections, anomalies and trends. (See “Considering the Choices for Visualization Software,” below, and the related article, “7 Tips for Evaluating Data Visualization Software.”)
While advanced scientific visualizations and polished, interactive media graphics represent the cutting edge, similar capabilities are finding their way into more hands, from large organizations with significant IT resources to medium and even small businesses. Tableau this month is adding a low-cost ($500) software as a service (SaaS), or hosted version of its Tableau server. Microsoft recently added a number of visualization options to Excel, including 3D analysis and geospatial maps.
Visual analytics can also help take IT out of the business of generating reports—a positive development, according to Forrester Research analyst Boris Evelson. “We can no longer afford to leave business intelligence and analytics in the hands of IT professionals. Everything changes way too fast. Even a simple report that goes through [the IT project cycle] will take at least a couple of weeks and in the modern world, that’s just not realistic,” Evelson says. The need for self-service data analysis and reporting is helping drive demand for the visual tools, he adds.
Royal Bank of Canada Visualizes High-Value Customer Segments
The Royal Bank of Canada’s (RBC) U.S. Wealth Management subsidiary replaced a proprietary, in-house data analytics application with Tableau. The bank was one of the Seattle-based company’s early customers, beginning in 2009 when it used the visual analytics software to generate several dozen regular reports for the sales support group for investment advisors serving high-net-worth clients, says Shawn Spott, vice president and manager of marketing research. After deliberately starting small, Spott says the investment group has increased to 3,500 users and 50 developers spanning business, sales and marketing departments, providing data dashboards, reporting and direct data access. In total, the software taps well over a terabyte of data.
Investment advisors and brokers use the dashboard to monitor metrics like net new asset growth and examine the variables that determine it and to drill down into client information. While the dashboards mostly present predefined queries in a narrow range of visualizations, more technical and statistics-savvy users have a freer hand in using Tableau. For example, analysts and consultants in finance and product management can run animations of scatter plots representing five years of client segmentation data, according to Spott.
This year the research department began using Tableau to analyze, condense and present the results of lengthy surveys. “It gives me the ability to convey to executives copious amounts of data reflecting client satisfaction, and their likeliness to refer new business and to show the trending of that over the last six years, and it’s been an interesting time in finance,” he says. “We used to generate multiple 60- to 70-page reports that would go question by question, with detailed grids of data. Now we produce a glossy four-page brochure that comes right out of Tableau. It has a couple of informational graphs with bubbles of commentary around each. We annotate them with arrows. We’ve culled it to the essential information, although there’s more if they want to look into it.”
Overall, the research department is providing on the order of five times the reports and other data assets with a third the staff, according to Spott. Generally, “users are getting access to data types they’ve never had access to,” he says. “We’re moving away from this world in which someone makes a request for a report and three months later they look at it once and then they move on with their lives because it’s three months late. The day they request it is the day they need it. We’ve got that window shortened to anywhere from a day to ten days for a report that has links to current data. We’re providing faster access to data to inform strategic decisions.”
A View into Student Needs, Trends at the University of Texas
While RBC Wealth Management adopted the standalone Tableau application, the University of Texas system opted for the visual analytics software of its data warehouse and business intelligence suite provider, SAS.
As part of that rollout, the public university system recently added SAS’s iPad business intelligence app, which administrators, the university community and the general public can use to access enrollment statistics, student debt data, intellectual property and technology transfer information. The visual analytics application is also available via Web browser. “It’s about presenting data in context, stories about data,” says Stephanie Bond Huie, vice chancellor for the office of strategic initiatives.
The visual query and analysis software is both internal and the public face of the university system’s strategic plan. Public users of the analytics application can access predefined reports, whereas administrators, faculty committee members and others have more extensive access.
The university system’s SAS implementation got underway in May 2011. “We’ve been in development phase, pulling data warehouses together and planning visualizations,” Huie says. “Now we’re dealing with the production issues, getting feedback from users on decision making and higher education. It’s about deciding whether to send your kids or pursue your own education and about the effectiveness of these tools and this data in supporting decision making about higher education policy.”
In the latter category is a task force on engineering education, looking into whether the Texas system is meeting demand for training in various subspecialties, the makeup of the engineering programs’ applicant pools, student profiles, and comparisons to other institutions.
In general, “analysts who maybe aren’t trained in using complex statistical packages can go into this type of [software] and be guided through an analysis and it helps the user determine that with this structure of data and these types of relationships, these are the charts and graphs that could be produced,” Huie says. “It takes an educated user on the other end to know understand the context and meaning of that data.”
Ted Smalley Bowen is a freelance writer and editor based in the Boston area Reach him via email at email@example.com.