Confronted with the traditional rows and columns of data describing hundreds of thousands of customers, business analysts are hard-pressed to discern trends to support rational decision-making. But displayed in a graphical form, patterns readily emerge from the data. That's why data visualization tools are no longer viewed as a business-intelligence accessory, but a necessity.
"We try to observe the behavior of customers and suppliers, which is driven by massive amounts of data," says Robert Moran, research vice president, Decision Support Research, at the Boston-based IT consultancy Aberdeen Group. "It's so voluminous that it is difficult to see trends. Visualization allows users to surface the underlying aspects of a pictorial."
Visualization tools sift through and make graphical sense of large volumes of information from data warehouses, data marts and associated analytical tools. Vendors with expertise in business intelligence, graphics or both are offering integrated visualization features or stand-alone modules that decision-makers can use to slice and dice structured and unstructured information.
Cognos Corporation's Visualizer augments business intelligence software with advanced visual reporting and analysis. Organizations use Visualizer as a "scorecard solution" because the intuitive nature of visualizations allows decision-makers to quickly understand large amounts of data characterized by a large number of dimensions or a geographical element.
"Human beings are very adept at recognizing numerous colors and patterns when driving their cars through city traffic. We cater to this natural skill," said Don Campbell, director of visualization products at Cognos.
Users can simultaneously visualize many metrics, such as sales per city by sales representative and delivery times, in easy-to-grasp graphical formats. The CEO can get a high-level view, while operational managers may opt for closer analysis and interactive filtering. They can change displays for critical performance measures, ask questions and drill down through to other components, such as PowerPlay for interactive OLAP analysis or transaction-level details in Cognos Impromptu. The company provides all these capabilities via both the LAN and the Web.
The underlying idea is to compel a company to drop months of costly custom development and tireless debugging in exchange for one big tool set that already takes into account issues of issues of security, data access and various types of reporting.
For example, Boston-based Mass Housing Finance, which offers loans for single-family and major multi-family housing centers, uses Visualizer to look at comparative data like loan expenditures over time and regions versus income levels. Users can see comparative graphs on a single screen, examine numerous scenarios and manipulate the information they need to make quick decisions.
Rival visualization tools on the market come from traditional BI players such as Brio and graphics powers such as Silicon Graphics, as well as from lesser-known entrants.
In 1999, Brio expanded its market presence through the acquisition of SQRIBE Technologies Corp. The extended product line enables Brio to meet the requirements of organizations that are utilizing e-business and the Web as critical components of their operations.
Visual Insights, a Lucent Technologies New Ventures Group company formed in 1997 to market Bell Labs patented data visualization technology, offers its ADVIZOR as a complete visual query and analysis tool for decision support. It combines interactive data visualization components with a visual workspace for applying vertical applications and application templates.
Canadian software company Visible Decisions claims that templates in its SeeIT tool extends sophisticated 3D visualization capabilities to end users. The $495 program allows users to zoom in, rotate images to shift perspective, apply additional calculations using filters, navigate and "brush" an image with the mouse to reveal the data within the image, and apply color to highlight distinctions.
statistics Canada, a national agency that collects and analyzes socioeconomic data uses SeeIT to analyze and publish its "Survey of Capital Expenditures," which samples 25,000 companies north of the border. The tool correlates dozens of data fields across industrial and geographical boundaries in seconds.
Another Canadian company, Hummingbird, offers Genio, a data transformation and exchange tool that brokers information from any source to any target. Genio enriches and directs the flow of information across the entire spectrum of corporate decision support systems including data marts, data warehouses and OLAP environments used by popular business intelligence tools. The graphic component offers a multi-user graphical development environment for designing data transformation and exchange processes. Users define business rules, functions and procedures and store them as reusable objects in Genio Designer within a metadata repository.
Business Objects offers a suite of software tools that help non-technical executives access and analyze information stored in corporate databases. BusinessObjects' components include WebIntelligence for querying, reporting and analyzing over the Web, and Supervisor for centralized security and control.
More than 8,600 companies in more than 60 countries use BusinessObjects. Two-thirds of company sales come from Europe. Among the company's biggest clients are British Telecom, Shell Oil and Peugeot. BusinessObjects runs on Windows and UNIX platforms and supports information stored on popular database software.