Trend Spotters

Finding needles in haystacks is getting a little easier, as data-visualization software for businesses matures.

Rick Whiting, Contributor

September 2, 2005

6 Min Read

The situation also is improving as vendors of scientific-analysis software, such as SAS Institute Inc., and dashboard software vendors, such as Corda Technologies Inc. and Cognos Inc., turn their own expertise to data visualization. There's greater opportunity for these vendors in the business market than there was a few years ago, now that the average desktop PC has enough power to massage massive amounts of data into comprehensible graphical images. For less than $5,000 a seat (possibly quite a bit less, for small-scale deployments), including the cost of a PC, most businesses can have access to visualization technology.

Downsizing the cost is important to budget-conscious organizations such as the Louisiana Office of Family Support, which manages the federal food-stamp program in the state. The department overlays data from Information Builders Inc.'s WebFocus business-intelligence tool onto mapping software from ESRI Inc. to help spot transactions that don't follow normal patterns and might indicate fraud, such as someone cashing food stamps at a store far from home. "You can see trends that you can't see in a report. Some of this stuff just pops out at you," says Sherwood LeMoine, a consultant in the Louisiana office.

Data visualization helps American Water find the real threats to its systems, security director Larson says. -- Photo by Chris Mueller/Redux PicturesPhoto by Chris Mueller/Redux Pictures

American Water, a subsidiary of RWE AG, has found that data-visualization tools help it discover anomalies of another sort. The company, which provides water service for 18 million customers, has more than 4,000 sensors monitoring its IT network for attacks and intrusions and generating more than 100,000 warnings every day. In that environment, it's a challenge for security director Bruce Larson to sort out the real threats. "Any time you have a lot of information with the potential for a lot of false-positives and a requirement for rapid response, you need data visualization," he says. American Water aggregates data from its security systems and presents it in real time using software from Advizor to display charts, such as one that provides a representation of the source and target IP addresses of network attacks.

Still, most data-visualization tools don't yet let users analyze real-time data, such as that generated by a network of radio-frequency identification sensors or data processed by a streaming data-analysis engine. One exception to this is data-visualization software from Visualize Inc., which Nasdaq uses to provide executives of its listed companies with real-time pricing and trading-volume data that can be converted into interactive colored charts. Generally, data quality and integrating data from many sources to support data-visualization applications remain knotty problems pre-empting real-time analysis.

"The shortcomings of data visualization as an interface to databases has been one of my pet peeves for many years," says Michael Stonebraker, an icon in the database world and CTO at StreamBase Systems Inc., which makes streaming-data-analysis engines. In the mid-1990s, at his object-relational database startup, Illustra Information Technologies Inc., Stonebraker developed an early graphical data-visualization user interface called Tioga that let users "fly" through and explore visual representations of huge volumes of information.

While such advanced concepts haven't caught on, for many companies the latest tools let them work more quickly than they once did. Infinity Pharmaceuticals Inc. uses Spotfire's DecisionSite tools to monitor data on drug-experiment quality control. That information--thousands of data points per experiment--used to be collected by Infinity's informatics department, which processed the data and sent it back to scientists in spreadsheets. "It would take weeks to review in Excel," Infinity analyst Jeffrey Reed says. DecisionSite displays the data using graphics that mimic the plates and their rows of wells in which chemical compounds are tested, using color-coding to tell which wells are contaminated.

Data visualization may even have legs as the next big thing in knowledge management. Clifford Chance LLP, a large international law firm, has built a knowledge-management application that provides a graphical view of, and the links among, the firm's law practices, experts in its 29 offices, and documents. A solicitor in the asset-finance practice searching for information about aircraft leasing, for example, can follow links to locate files and people with expertise in the transportation practice area. Before building the data-visualization app two years ago, using tools from Thinkmap Inc., each practice had its own database, and the firm maintained an unwieldy taxonomy in a Microsoft Word document, says CIO Paul Greenwood. "When we printed it out, it was impenetrable."

Microsoft is thinking the same way. Internally, managers have access to a system tied to Outlook that provides a 3-D graphic of how they relate to any of the company's 60,000 employees, says George Robertson, who heads up the vendor's Visualization and Interaction Research Group and serves on the National Visualization and Analytics Center's advisory board. Microsoft is building similar capabilities into a future version of its Identity Integration Service software that IT managers will use to view intersecting hierarchies of data across multiple databases. And Windows Vista will offer visualization capabilities that show how items in a list, such as the results of an Internet search, relate to one another, Robertson says.

It's clear that the business applications for data visualization are only starting to be explored. The Louisiana Office of Family Support plans to expand the use of its data-visualization tools to such tasks as finding the best locations for the department's offices based on client traffic and analyzing spending on child-care services. "This is really a business-management system," LeMoine says. In an increasingly complex business world, that may be just what's needed.

-- with Charles Babcock

Illustration by Steve Keller

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