Big Data // Big Data Analytics
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2/10/2014
09:06 AM
Shane O'Neill
Shane O'Neill
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Big Data Is Nothing If Not Visual

"The Visual Organization" author Phil Simon discusses data visualization tools and their power to change business conversations.

Big data can be big chaos. But finding clarity -- and business opportunities -- in that chaos has never been more important.

Presenting data clearly and visually is now as important as finding it. Enter data visualization tools that create heat maps, data relationship trees, and geospatial overlays. They provide visual ways to explain a sales trend to the CEO in a few minutes. They turn data into a conversation.

This is the timely subject of Too Big To Ignore author Phil Simon's upcoming book, The Visual Organization: Data Visualization, Big Data, and the Quest for Better Decisions (Wiley, 2014), due out next month.

Phil SimonPhil Simon

Simon sat down with InformationWeek to discuss how to become more of a "visual organization," the perils of being a big data laggard, and more.

IW: Phil, you emphasize in your book, The Visual Organization, that data visualization is more than just pie charts and pretty pictures that display data sets. What are key features and functions of contemporary dataviz tools that help organizations make better decisions?

PS: First, the best-of-breed dataviz tools these days are sophisticated. They can handle an array of data sources. They can easily accommodate not only internal enterprise data sources like relational databases, but external sources such as Twitter firehoses, third-party scripts, open datasets, charting libraries, and the like.

Second, they're not restricted to structured data linked via traditional drivers and ETL [extract, transform, load]. Many can handle semi-structured and even unstructured data sources from APIs. Third, they are interactive; that is, they do not merely present static data, they encourage data discovery and exploration.

An interactive dataviz tool used by Netflix employees to view how content is consumed by date, hour, and category. 
Source: Netflix Technology Blog
An interactive dataviz tool used by Netflix employees to view how content is consumed by date, hour, and category.
Source: Netflix Technology Blog

Fourth, they are much more user-friendly than the applications of years past. While technical sophistication is beneficial, you don't have to be a programmer or data scientist to make sense of data in Spotfire or Tableau, for instance. Finally, they lend themselves to sharing, both internally and for the outside world.

IW: What's preventing companies from becoming visual organizations? Dataviz tools are not difficult to implement, and popular companies like Netflix and LinkedIn prove they work.

PS: To be fair, most organizations already employ data visualization tools. Microsoft Excel is the classic example. Now, I love Excel and it has evolved over the last two decades. For instance, PowerQuery is pretty neat. But it's a mistake to believe that Excel can effectively handle all of an organization's data visualization needs.

Many large organizations implemented expensive business intelligence software in the 1990s and 2000s. Those BI tools, though, are predicated on dashboards, traditional analytics, KPIs, etc. They assume to a large extent that a user knows what he or she is looking for.

To answer your question though, old habits die hard. There's an "ain't broke, don't fix it" mindset in many organizations. Many employees fear the unknown and stick with tried-and-true tools like Excel. Plenty of CXOs insist upon firm ROI calculations before making any new major technology purchase. And let's not forget that organizations have had for the most part dismal batting averages implementing new systems, which was the subject of one of my previous books, Why New Systems Fail.

IW: What types of businesses are becoming visual organizations? Which ones are resisting?

PS: Organizations that understand the potential power of data (big and small) are jumping on board first. Companies like Cisco, Pandora, ESPN, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, eBay, and others are discovering fascinating things

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Shane O'Neill is Managing Editor for InformationWeek. Prior to joining InformationWeek, he served in various roles at CIO.com, most notably as assistant managing editor and senior writer covering Microsoft. He has also been an editor and writer at eWeek and TechTarget. ... View Full Bio

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Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
2/18/2014 | 1:39:23 PM
Re: Non-Visual Data Worth Anything?
I'm not sure about that -- these folks were raised on Excel spreadsheets -- but I do think we will get there. Consider the graphical representations we get of personal data these days, in everything from banking to fitness. C-level execs should expect more of business data presentation.
BRIAN_CIAMPA
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BRIAN_CIAMPA,
User Rank: Strategist
2/18/2014 | 7:55:24 AM
Non-Visual Data Worth Anything?
Have we reached a point yet in which it is unacceptable to display data to a C-level individual in a non-visual way?
Stratustician
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Stratustician,
User Rank: Ninja
2/12/2014 | 11:13:54 AM
Re: The Visual Organization
This reminds me of an earlier conversation about the potential induction of creative folks into the data scientist roles.  Reason being, in order to make a lot of the meaningful correlations between the data points, organizations might want to look at more creative types who can find less obvious connections between data.  That being said, having a visual representation of data might make more sense since these folks, speaking as a creative, would probably have an easier time visually identifying connections than staring at databases.  After all, not too many creative folks in the data modelling field. Ofcourse, you could argue about why a good chunk of the IT folks out there are musicians...
HM
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HM,
User Rank: Strategist
2/11/2014 | 4:53:01 PM
HPCC Systems
Shane, great article. With the explosion of big data, companies are faced with data challenges in three different areas. First, you know the type of results you want from your data but it's computationally difficult to obtain. Second, you know the questions to ask but struggle with the answers and need to do data mining to help find those answers. And third is in the area of data exploration where you need to reveal the unknowns and look through the data for patterns and hidden relationships. The open source HPCC Systems big data processing platform can help companies with these challenges by deriving insights from massive data sets quick and simple. Designed by data scientists, it is a complete integrated solution from data ingestion and data processing to data delivery. Their built-in Machine Learning Library and Matrix processing algorithms can assist with business intelligence and predictive analytics. More at http://hpccsystems.com
 
J_Brandt
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J_Brandt,
User Rank: Ninja
2/11/2014 | 1:22:24 PM
Re: Should designers be part of the team?
David, I'd have to agree that having someone on the team with that background would be a huge plus.
_philsimon
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_philsimon,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/10/2014 | 4:48:08 PM
Re: Should designers be part of the team?
Thanks for the comment, David. Designers are still important and you'll never hear me say otherwise. I argue in the book, however, that traditional silos and roles are giving way to hybrid employees. In many cases, new tools no longer require dedicated personnel with decades of expertise. 
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
2/10/2014 | 3:59:34 PM
Should designers be part of the team?
I'm wondering if there is a need for someone to be on the team who thinks about making these visualizations look good and communicate clearly, as opposed to relying on software tools to spit out meaningful visualizations.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
2/10/2014 | 1:11:23 PM
The Visual Organization
Does your company still rely on Excel for data analytics? Would data visualization tools open up conversations between business groups and help the company make better decisions? Share your thoughts below, whether you're using dataviz or not.
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