Forrester has released a new report titled “Advanced Data Visualization (ADV) Platforms” by Boris Evelson and Noel Yuhanna, which you may purchase for a mere $2,500. I suppose that some reports might actually be worth the price of 50 books on the topic (at $50 each), but I’m certain that this report isn’t on that list. How can I be certain without reading it? (No, I didn’t pony up $2,500.) Because, based on his previous work, I know that Boris Evelson understands little about data visualization and is misinformed in many respects, and because the abstract that Forrester’s made available to tempt us into buying it reveals that it’s fundamentally flawed. Here’s what it says:
Enterprises find advanced data visualization (ADV) platforms to be essential tools that enable them to monitor business, find patterns, and take action to avoid threats and snatch opportunities. In Forrester’s 29-criteria evaluation of ADV vendors, we found that Tableau Software, IBM, Information Builders, SAS, SAP, Tibco Software, and Oracle led the pack due to the breadth of their ADV business intelligence (BI) functionality offerings. Microsoft, MicroStrategy, Actuate, QlikTech, Panorama Software, SpagoBI, Jaspersoft, and Pentaho were close on the heels of the Leaders, also offering solid functionality to enable business users to effectively visualize and analyze their enterprise data.”
No one with even a modicum of expertise in data visualization would place IBM, Information Builders, SAP, and Oracle in the list of advance data visualization leaders along with Tableau Software, Tibco Spotfire, and SAS, nor would they leave good vendors such as Panopticon and Advizor Solutions off the list. The chasm that separates these data visualization providers is huge. Lists and claims like these are typical in reports by Forrester and Gartner. There’s a reason for this. Do you know how software vendors get onto Gartner’s annual BI magic quadrant? They pay for the privilege. When vendors that deserve notice are missing from the list, it’s because they haven’t paid the fee. When they suddenly appear in the magic quadrant although they were never there before, it isn’t because they’ve improved in a significant way, but because they paid the fee for the first time. I don’t know exactly how Forrester works, but I suspect that it’s the same. (Anyone who works for Forrester is welcome to tell us differently by responding to this blog.)
Even though I haven’t read the report, I did get a glimpse into it by reading Evelson’s recent blog post about it. What does Forrester mean by advanced data visualization?
How is Advanced Data Visualization (ADV) is [sic] different from earlier generations of data visualizations? Many corporations have effectively used — and will continue to use — traditional business graphics, such as bar charts and pie charts. At the next level, modern technologies have enabled the use of more dynamic and interactive business graphics, such as real-time dashboards and charts that update automatically as the data changes…Now, through ADV, potential exists for nontraditional and more visually rich approaches, especially in regard to more complex (i.e., thousands of dimensions or attributes) or larger (i.e., billions of rows) data sets, to reveal insights not possible through conventional means. Forrester differentiates ADV from static graphs and charts along six capabilities, as follows:
- Dynamic data content.
- Visual querying.
- Multiple-dimension, linked visualization.
- Animated visualization.
- Business-actionable alerts.
What becomes immediately clear to anyone with experience in data visualization is the fact that by “advanced” Forrester is referring to features that have existed for quite awhile. Tableau, Tibco Spotfire, SAS (the product JMP in particular), Panopticon, and Advizor Analyst have always supported these features, with the exception of animation, which is only useful for some visual storytelling, not for data exploration and analysis, and “business-actionable alerts” (don’t you just love the jargon?), which are useful for performance monitoring. The bar is set fairly low. Forrester is just talking about basic information visualization as defined by Card, Mackinlay, and Shneiderman in 1999 as “…the use of computer-supported interactive visual representations of abstract data to amplify cognition.”
But wait, there’s more.
Navigating the ADV landscape requires evaluating significantly more features than the six key ADV capabilities described in the previous section. In our latest research, Forrester identified numerous functional and technical capabilities businesses need to architect, design, build, and implement ADV applications. Forrester recommends starting your evaluation of ADV platforms by defining your requirements for the following functionality:
- Types of graphs, charts and other visualizations.
- Tufte’s microcharts.
- Cockpit gauges. [Seriously?]
- Visual query.
- Visual exploration. [Duh!]
- Geospatial representations. [This is just one of those useful forms of data visualization that belongs among the "type of graphs, charts and other visualizations" that they referred to in their first point above.]
- Modes of interaction.
- Storyboarding fit for client and boardroom-level presentations.
- Data latency.
- Data granularity based on your requirement.
The points in the list above — those that are useful — are well known and have been for ages. Granted, they are not well known to everyone in the business intelligence community, but should these folks really pay $2,500 for this report to learn about them when excellent books and many free resources are available, which were written by actual experts in the field?
Typical of many in the field of business intelligence, Forrester’s team is obsessed with the technology rather than the skills and activities that inform effective data visualization, especially of the advanced variety. This fact is revealed by the following section of Evelson’s blog:
Forrester identified eight categories of ADV technical architecture capabilities through posing the following questions:
- What analytical engines does the ADV platform support? How does it access and process data?
- Is there an intermediate storage platform?
- How is the in-memory data model managed?.
- What types of data can the ADV platform analyze?
- Does the ADV platform support write-backs?
- What platform/technology is the ADV output based on?
- What, if any, ADV-specific programming language is used?
- What are the ADV platform’s integration capabilities?
Most of these are the wrong questions. If either of the two authors of this report and any of the seven contributors had any real experience with data visualization or had ever worked as data analysts, they would realize this. Read the biographies of the contributors to this report and you will discover in each case someone who is entrenched in an old and myopic BI mindset. To understand the potential of data visualization, especially advanced data visualization, you must actually study it and do it. In many respects, an extensive background in BI, especially at an expert level, works against one’s ability to understand the interaction with data that is needed for sensemaking. It is a human activity that involves our eyes and brains. It can be supported wonderfully by well-designed technologies, but never driven by them. To date, none of the software vendors on Forrester’s list, except for the three that I singled out as worthy, have developed better than rudimentary data visualization tools, many of which are truly awful.
If you want to learn about data visualization, especially what to look for in a well-designed tool, read the article in my most recent Visual Business Intelligence Newsletter titled “Criteria for Evaluating Visual EDA Tools“. You will not only learn more than you would by reading Forrester’s new report, but you will also save yourself $2,500. Now that’s a deal. If you’ve already paid for Forrester’s report, demand your money back. Make them accountable for delivering a level of expertise that warrants the high price.