Advances in Data Visualization Software Empower Business Users

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U Texas SAS data viz on patents 650x488 Advances in Data Visualization Software Empower Business Users

The University of Texas system uses visualizations to assess a number of trends, including patents issues to its branches.

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.

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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.

RBC dashboard viz 650x303 Advances in Data Visualization Software Empower Business Users

Above, an anonymized view to illustrate the kind of dashboard used by RBC Wealth Management.

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.”

Considering the Choices for Visualization Software

Visual analytics and data visualization are ways of handling data as much as they are discrete product categories. The taxonomies vary, but broadly put, visual analytics and data visualization applications help users discover and explore their data, analyze it and present it. They are commonly grouped with business intelligence and analytics or data visualization software. Choice of tools depends on the types and volumes of data to be handled, who consumes the data and for what purpose, the users’ IT architecture, and a host of other factors.

The applications require varying degrees of analytical and design skills. Microsoft Excel is the most widely used tool in part because of its ubiquity and ease of use. Some tools are part of integrated business intelligence or enterprise application suites. Others offer front end integration with a wide range of data sources.

Gartner Group, in its February, 2013 Business Intelligence and Analytics Platforms review highlights some key visual analytics and data visualization capabilities. These include interactive visualizations, graphs and reports, predictive modeling, tracking business metrics via scorecards, real-time data updates, ad hoc querying (eliminating the need for IT assistance), and collaboration. Gartner’s report groups vendors of stand-alone platforms like Tableau Software and QlikTech (the maker of QlikView) with enterprise software players like Oracle and SAP and business intelligence vendors like Information Builders.

Forrester Research includes a similar range of vendors, adding companies including IBM, SAS, Tibco, Microsoft, MicroStrategy, Actuate, SpagoBI, Panorama Software, Jaspersoft and Pentaho. Forrester singles out a number of defining characteristics, including a wide array of display and visualization options, dynamic data content, visual querying, linking of related graphs, charts and other elements such that changes in one are reflected in the others, animation, event alerts, geospatial representations (like maps and architectural drawings), and personalization.

While most tools handle both structured and unstructured data, some are better for structured data—the rows and columns of network security statistics or financial data, and others are better for unstructured data—like social media feeds or genetic information. Some data, such as Twitter feeds, can be treated as unstructured text or organized in spreadsheets, although there are trade-offs. Forrester Research notes in its third quarter 2012 Advanced Data Visualization Platforms review that visual analytics applications also need to handle semi-structured data like XML and state of process information from business process management applications.

The tools in this category support popular query languages, primarily SQL and MDX, but also XQuery and DMX. Support for multiple data platforms is a baseline requirement, according to Shawn Spott, vice president and manager of marketing research at RBC Wealth Management. “I need to be able to cross Teradata, SQL and an Excel spreadsheet on a single dashboard and actually be able to join those data sources for my query,” he said.

Among popular products, Tableau can be seen as a spreadsheet on steroids, tied to more sophisticated analysis and display types. The tool requires little programming to set up and connect to data sources and automates the process of selecting the right visualization for a given data set. Most products pair data with appropriate graphics, or present users with suitable choices, including tables of text, bar charts, heat maps, scatter plots, tree maps, or Gantt charts. Tibco Spotfire is oriented toward statistical analysis, which can require more expertise on the part of the user.

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 theo.bowen@gmail.com.




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