Some companies are installing visualization walls -- big banks of

Michael Fitzgerald, Contributor

March 26, 2013

4 Min Read

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CIOs the world over are having trouble getting big insights from their big data.

More than half of executives who responded to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey in late 2012 said it's difficult to get something useful out of the troves of data they have. Anand Rao, a principal at PwC, thinks it's because too few firms use visualization for their data. "Only 26% are using it," he said.

That creates trouble for companies as they get more data. "You're talking about petabytes or exabytes of data," Rao said. "The data we have is far more than what people can comprehend in their heads. You can't do the analytics if you're not able to visualize the data."

Traditional business intelligence tools have nifty dashboards with lots of graphics on them, "but those are very static, very much backward looking, telling us what has happened and why," Rao said.

[ Know an analytics student who could use a visualization tool? Read Tableau Makes Visual Analytics Tool Free For Students. ]

Companies that want to look at things like relationships between customers, for instance, need new techniques and tools when they are dealing with hundreds of thousands of customers.

The cost of visualizing is dropping rapidly, said Rao. Visualization walls -- 'viz walls' -- banks of high-definition monitors that companies can use to display and manipulate vast amounts of data in one place, are moving from the province of futuristic movies and TV shows to actual companies.

Rao says the costs of such a wall are falling into the "tens of thousands" of dollars range, affordable for most medium-size companies. He mentioned but would not name a consumer products company that has a viz wall it uses to look at its product sales across the globe, to help it make sure it has supply to meet demand. At another company, top executives use a viz wall to evaluate strategy.

The University of Texas at San Antonio built a viz wall in 2011 as part of its Center for Visualization, Simulation and Real-time Prediction (SIVIRT). Yusheng Feng, director of SIVIRT, said he knew the viz wall would be great for displaying very large and high-resolution images, but it's had some unexpected bonuses. "We had a student defend his thesis in the viz lab on optimization for a medical device. So when he goes through the optimization process, he posted all the different configurations over 22 monitors, and on another two monitors he displayed the convergence and different configurations and physical features they are looking into."

With the "one global view," it was clear to viewers what "optimal structures they were looking at," said Feng. "That's something we didn't know. The tiled configuration actually helps us to give a global view. We thought that was very neat."

Feng said he's had several companies come look at the viz wall. He's currently helping one of them, a large construction company based in San Antonio, build its own viz wall.

The PwC survey suggests that companies investing in visualization outperform their rivals. Thirty-seven percent of those that have already invested in visualization told PwC they will expand their investment in 2013. Globally, companies based in Asia-Pacific will begin investing in visualization tools this year, a first. However, almost half of Asian respondents said their IT systems were incapable of integrating data from multiple systems, compared with 41% of American respondents and only a third of European respondents.

Though viz walls might be the future, Rao says CIOs should not get too caught up in the bells and whistles offered by analytics vendors. Instead, CIOs need to help their businesses use data to make decisions that will immediately help the company out in the field, where it meets customers. CIOs always should start with their business needs, then assess which data, analysis techniques, visualization and skillsets will meet those needs. That will help to not "get carried away by the nice gizmos vendors will try to sell you," Rao said.

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About the Author(s)

Michael Fitzgerald


Michael Fitzgerald writes about the power of ideas and the people who bring them to bear on business, technology and culture.

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