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The ABCs of Data Visualization

Spotfire Data Visualization 300x173 The ABCs of Data VisualizationA:  What is it?

The business value of data visualization more than proves the old adage:  A picture really is worth a thousand words.

Data visualization” is (basically) displaying the result of data operations in a format that communicates primarily through shapes, colors, and/or representational images.  Data visualizations almost always have labels to identify/explain the non-verbal content.

Data visualization was a minor factor in most businesses up until a few years ago–but that has changed dramatically.  Here’s why:

  1. There’s a lot more data to deal with.
  2. More people in the business need to see and understand data.
  3. Data is being used in more complex ways.
  4. Visualizations are much easier to produce.

There are two main formats for data visualization:  displays and presentations.  Displays provide information “at-a-glance,” usually as a dashboard or scorecard.  Most displays focus on metrics of some kind (such as Key Performance Indicators) and show high-level overviews.  They range from simple indicators (such as red-yellow-green “stoplights”) to interactive landscapes that allow users to see rolled-up numbers quickly and then drill into the data.

Presentations are more likely to utilize static information graphics, typically to explain concepts and explore complex topics.  Infographics often include advanced data representations (such as geographic maps, time-series charts, spark lines, heat maps, tree maps, bubble charts, and the like), along with photographic images, artwork and sophisticated design.

B:  Why does it matter?

So let’s say some number-crunching has determined that your company’s widget production of 25,480 units for Q1 is up by 13% this year over last year’s Q1 production of 22,730 units, but down by 2% compared to a five-year quarterly average of 26,011 units.  You could read that sentence and figure out the relationships—or you could look at a nice chart, showing the five Q1 totals as bars and the moving five-year average as a line.

Which would be the fastest way to grasp the “information” (actionable knowledge) revealed by the data?

On the whole, we can use visual input more efficiently than verbal input.  That’s an over-generalization, but it describes the way most people function in practical life.  In terms of getting to a specific destination, a map of the mall or the subway system is more helpful than a description would be.  And the same thing is true if you want to quickly identify whether profits are up or down, production is at or below capacity, market share is growing or shrinking.

So “faster” is one advantage of data visualization.  “Simpler” is another, since data visualizations can filter out irrelevancies and complexities in order to present an easy-to-understand view—and that can make data-driven business intelligence more user-friendly across the enterprise.

Two more virtues of data visualization:  (1) Working with ideas visually rather than verbally can stimulate creative/innovative thinking, speed up problem solving, and facilitate teamwork.  (2) Visual depictions of data often reveal patterns, trends and correlations that wouldn’t be noticed in a sea of numbers or a lengthy text description.

C:  What’s next?

The data visualization capabilities of business intelligence products are continuing to improve, offering tighter integration and greater functionality.  Similarly, the use of data visualization is spreading across organizations, empowering more people with actionable information.  And beyond business, there’s a growing interest in using data visualization as a tool for communicating about social issues, scientific developments, and much more.

But in terms of business use, the next wave of visualization technology—for example, high-quality 3-D visualizations that really enhance complex data, and sophisticated animations that can reveal pattern changes over time—is still somewhere over the horizon.

Want to know more?  Discover how your business can benefit from data visualization in the webcast Visualize the Future with TIBCO Spotfire Analytics.  You can also browse some of the outstanding books about data visualization, from practical introductions (like The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics: The Dos and Don’ts of Presenting Data, Facts, and Figures) to elegant casebooks (such as O’Reilly Media’s Beautiful Visualization:  Looking at Data through the Eyes of Experts).

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