Big Data // Big Data Analytics
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6/13/2014
09:06 AM
Shane O'Neill
Shane O'Neill
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How Data Visualization Helped Me Run Faster

Could you use a data visualization lift in your life and work?

I never thought I'd be that guy who tracks his fitness data. But a few months ago I tapped on the Nike+ app on my iPod Nano and after about a mile I was a running data junkie.

The lure of easy information sucked me in. I now knew -- through a simple app UI and voice prompts -- my average pace per mile, distance, time, and calories burned for every run. How had I spent all those years slogging through my runs unquantified? 

Of course, just knowing basic numbers wasn't enough if I wanted to run faster, which is really the point. What got me hooked is how the Nike+ website and mobile app crunch those numbers for me and display them in such a powerful way. To understand the data -- and to really get addicted to the data, enough to change my behavior -- I need to see it. 

[Author Phil Simon discusses data viz tools and their power to change business conversations. Read Big Data Is Nothing If Not Visual] 

I soon recognized patterns via the Nike+ visual dashboard and activity logs, and I didn't like what I saw. The line graphs showed that during my typical 4-mile runs my pace consistently dropped in the middle miles.

I knew what was going on here, and I'm sure other runners can relate: After a mile or so, I tend to tune out mentally and slow down. It's not that I'm physically tired; my body just switches to autopilot, and it's subtle enough that I never noticed it. But on a data chart, it shows up as a reverse bell curve. Start out high, sag in the middle, finish strong as I smell the finish line.

With these data insights, and the help of voice reminders about time and distance during the runs, I made some adjustments. Being engaged with the data helped me keep up the pace during those dreaded middle miles. It became natural after awhile to simply not allow myself to coast like I used to. I suppose there's something about knowing my data is being tracked that makes me run like I’m being chased. 

It only took a few runs to turn the reverse bell curve into something closer to a straight line. I wouldn't say I'm a fast runner now -- more like less slow -- but I did improve as a direct result of understanding the data.

My little fitness Eureka isn't groundbreaking stuff. Lots of people analyze their exercise data using a variety of wearable devices and activity tracking services. But it's a relevant microcosm of how businesses can use data visualization tools in a clear and visceral way – from showing a CEO how customer demographics are shifting to using visual dashboards to track financial data more easily. It makes data analytics seem less intimidating and technical and puts it into the hearts and minds of employees. This is classic consumerization of IT, too: How come I understand so much more about my morning run than I do about the stuff my career hinges on?

Make no mistake, data visualization tools are coming to the enterprise. In InformationWeek's 2014 Analytics, BI & Information Management Survey of 250 IT decision-makers, "Advanced data visualization capabilities" was the technology most respondents were interested in implementing this year.

Additionally, the percentage of respondents with plans to adopt software from Tableau, which focuses solely on data visualization tools, grew by 7 percentage points year-over-year, to 19%, while the percentage of those planning to adopt from traditional players like Oracle, IBM, and SAS fell by 2% to 3% on average. 

Data retrieval and analytics remain complex beasts at the enterprise level, as "data scientists" skilled in Hadoop wrestle with a sea of structured and unstructured data sets. But for it to really drive business results, data needs to end up as pictures. Armed with interactive charts, heat maps, and data relationship maps and trees, employees will make better and more confident business decisions.

These better decisions may even become -- like my faster pace during miles 2 and 3 – second nature.

You can use distributed databases without putting your company's crown jewels at risk. Here's how. Also in the Data Scatter issue of InformationWeek: A wild-card team member with a different skill set can help provide an outside perspective that might turn big data into business innovation. (Free registration required.)

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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Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
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6/13/2014 | 2:36:39 PM
Re: Bring it to the next level with GPS
I hear what you're saying, @Chris. My running data is still interesting to me -- beyond time, distance, and calories, I've been tracking the time of day I run and weather (I consistently run better at night when it's cooler). But eventually this will start to feel like navel-gazing, and I'll want to share this stuff with fellow runners. Ideally, a running group could all be on the same app sharing run data to train for a big race. That would make it more fun.
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
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6/13/2014 | 1:57:57 PM
Re: Bring it to the next level with GPS
It'll be interesting to see how long the data love affair lasts. When I got a heart rate monitor, I found it intriguing for awhile, then I found it fairly predictable and don't wear it much. On the other hand, I always use the Strava app to chart miles -- as Doug notes below, that provides an automated exercise log, but it also lets me know what my friends I follow have been doing, which is fun. 
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
6/13/2014 | 11:09:27 AM
Re: Bring it to the next level with GPS
Great stuff Doug, thanks. I'm still a fitness tracking novice, but I plan to take it to another level with a smartwatch or wristband. Heart-rate and recovery times are important metrics if you take running seriously. I was disappointed that Nike is discontinuing it's Fuelband wristbands. But clearly they think the hardware side of fitness wearables is a no-win situation and they'd rather focus on software and apps.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
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6/13/2014 | 10:45:20 AM
Bring it to the next level with GPS
Good story. I, too, am a Nike+ system user, but I added the TomTom-powered Nike+ GPS watch a couple of years ago. Pasted below is an image of a run projected on a map, with an elevation profile and heart rate information just below the map. You use a heart-rate monitor as a training tool to see your fitness progress as measured by recovery times.

Lately I'm not doing much more than logging my runs without a heart-rate monitor and without paying much attention to the data. It makes keeping a running diary -- something runners often do manually -- much easer. If I were trying to break a personal-best-time or gear up for a race, I'd be paying closer attention to the data.

I'm sure Nike itself is making a lot of use of this data and it could be why they're getting out of the device business. The system lets you list multiple shoes and log the miles run on each pair. If most runners are like me, Nike has learned that customers list shoes from rivals, like Asics, Brooks, and New Balance. I also use the GPS watch when cross country skiing so I can see where and how far I skied. I don't get out calculators and pour over the data. I could, of course, but for me it has lapsed into an easy way to keep a record of my favorite recreational activities.

Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
6/13/2014 | 10:23:44 AM
Re: Eureka
Yes, I'd like to think it was an Agile-esque approach. :) Don't overplan, just get to it and learn as you go, study data patterns, set and complete short-term goals, iterate, keep going.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
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6/13/2014 | 10:05:43 AM
Eureka
Congrats on your eureka moment, Shane. But you made the first step: You got out to run. Modern business process embraces that instinct instead of weighing ideas down in death by committee/e-mail approval string.
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