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7/2/2013
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Big Data: 6 Ways To Find What Matters

Big data is poised for a big backlash from business leaders if we can't deliver what matters clearly, in real time. One answer: visualization technology.

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This time, Susan Zweibaum was ready. Zweibaum, director of online content for Acme United, a manufacturer of cutting, measuring and safety products, was on deck for her quarterly meeting with the CEO and chairman. On the agenda: the rate of online growth, a huge topic that often got mired in some obscure detail of the data. Zweibaum had exactly an hour to cover all of it, plus get her future plans on the table.

Acme makes a range of products, including Westcott scissors, Camillus knives and Physicians Care first aid kits, that are sold at thousands of retailers and online sites, from specialty shops to Wal-Mart and Amazon. The company, which has facilities in the United States, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong and China and registered $84.4 million in revenue last year, collects terabytes of data from millions of customers and partners annually. Zweibaum wanted to keep her quarterly progress reports focused on a holistic picture of online trends, problems and opportunities, and not some obscure retail site or blip on the purchasing screen.

To highlight what's important, Zweibaum created a global index of retail sales that can be compared to sales at its big retail partners and to Acme's product sales. The concept, modeled after stock indexes, provides a visual reference of overall trends, highlighting how Acme is doing compared with key partners and with the retail sector overall.

For the CEO, it shows exactly what's working and changes the tenor of the conversation from "Are we doing anything right?" to "Great. What's next?"

Zweibaum's situation isn't unique. What IT or marketing pro hasn't faced the glaze that comes over the CEO's eyes after 20 minutes of running through quarterly results? Now amplify that as big data takes off and the number of sources of customer, vendor and operational data grows. You can track behavior across geographies and devices, time and space. But can you deliver the right data, at the right time, in a way that's useful to the business?

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For many, the answer is no. Just 9% of the 257 respondents to our InformationWeek 2013 Big Data Survey rate their organizations as extremely effective at identifying critical data and using it to make decisions. Four percent had the guts to admit that they stink in this regard. And when asked about the biggest impediments to information management success, 58% cite accessing relevant, timely or reliable data, and 48% cite integrating data, according to the 517 information management-involved business technology professionals in our InformationWeek 2013 Analytics, Business Intelligence and Information Management Survey.

Enter data visualization. If you think that just means shading your Excel charts, think again. Data visualization tools distinguish themselves from classic graphing and reporting suites in three ways.

First, they have superior graphing and reporting options, such as the ability to create heat maps, relationship maps and trees, geospatial overlays, and timeline and storyline charts, elements you just can't create with conventional analytics tools.

Second, visualization suites allow for automated data updates, and for live drill downs, on-the-fly segmentation and instant "what if" scenarios. These features are much more about exploring data than just presenting it.

To read the rest of the article,
download the July 8, 2013, issue of InformationWeek.

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