In reality, there’s data visualization, and then there’s “advanced” data visualization. But telling the difference is getting tougher these days, as just about every business intelligence and analytics vendor out there has released a data visualization module or add-on capability billed as advanced.
The examples include IBM Cognos Insight, Microsoft Power View, and MicroStrategy Visual Insight. There are new data-visualization capabilities bundled with the Oracle Exalytics appliance, SAS Visual Analytics, and SAP Visual Intelligence.
Why all the new products? IDC’s BI and analytics market share stats show that Tableau Software, one of the leaders in advanced data visualization, was the fastest-growing BI vendor in 2011, with a 94.2 percent increase in software revenue. Tibco Spotfire, another visualization leader, had 23.5 percent growth.
Visualization is hot because it makes data analysis easier. Analysis with more conventional BI query and analysis tools is still hard: Nearly half (45 percent) of the 414 respondents to our InformationWeek Business Intelligence, Analytics, and Information Management Survey, conducted late last year, cited “ease-of-use challenges with complex software/less-technically savvy employees” as a barrier to adopting BI or analytics products. That was second, barely, to “data quality problems,” cited by 46 percent.
The online dating company, Match.com, started using Tableau Software early this year to put analysis capabilities “in the hands of our users, not elite analytics or BI experts,” says Atin Kulkarni, senior director of strategy and analytics.
Match.com’s Tableau users now include people in product management, finance, public relations, and business development – about two dozen in all. Another 12 to 15 BI and analytics pros and power users also use it, since the software can illuminate patterns and trends that aren’t as apparent when presented as data in columns and rows.
Match.com is a Microsoft SQL Server shop, and it uses SAS for advanced analytics, but it chose Tableau with more mainstream users in mind, says Kulkarni. (Microsoft has since released Power View, and SAS has introduced Visual Analytics Explorer.)
So, what’s the difference between “advanced” data visualization and routine sorts of charts and graphs you can do in Excel or PowerPoint? Kulkarni cites the example of geospatial visualization, something Match.com’s unit for new business uses to plan offline dating events. Match.com started putting on live events such as cooking classes and wine tastings as a way to extend its online dating business, and a lot of analysis is required to plan an event that will draw its online users to a particular location.
With a data visualization superimposed on a map view, Match.com can see “where our members are located, what age group they fall into, and what gender they’re hoping to meet,” says Kulkarni. This helps planners see concentrations of registered users and subscribers with the right chemistry. With promising ZIP codes or neighborhoods identified, Match.com planners can scour sites such as Yelp for popular locations to hold an event.
Many Tableau rivals offer map-based geospatial analyses, too, as analytics vendors add this and that chart type to get ahead. “It’s an arms race where we say we have a tree map and a network graph and a bullet chart, and they’ll say, ‘We have this one and that one, and you don’t,’” says Lou Jordano, director of product marketing at Tibco Spotfire.
How do you separate “advanced” visualization from the also-rans? Forrester Research Inc. analysts Boris Evelson and Noel Yuhanna identify six traits: dynamic data, visual querying, linked multidimensional visualization, animation, personalization, and alerts. Dynamic data means visualizations updated as data changes in sources such as databases. Visual querying lets you change a query by clicking on a portion of the graph or chart (to drill down, for example). With multidimensional linking, selections made in one chart are reflected as you navigate into other charts. Personalization lets you give power users an in-depth view and newbies a simpler view, and also lets you set user- and role-based data access privileges. Alerts let you send an automated message at certain thresholds and parameters.
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