Let’s open our eyes–the importance of data visualization to BI

The ground in my Berkeley neighborhood is saturated. A series of winter storms have drenched us with rain to the point where the earth has closed its mouth, refusing to drink any more. Our streets have become rivers and lakes. As I contemplate what to say in this, my first-ever blog entry, the current saturated state of the earth seems a fitting metaphor for our information-soaked world. I can’t help but wonder, “Does the world need yet another blog, the rambling musings of another “thought leader”, to add to the already dense infosphere?” As I await your answer, over time revealed through your visits to this site, I’ll do my best to make it worth your while by letting the emergence of worthwhile ideas determine when I make new entries to vie for your attention, rather than some arbitrary schedule of demand.

Although I’ve been involved in every aspect of business intelligence and data warehousing over the years, my primary interest today involves the use of visual representations of data to make sense of (analyze) and communicate information. This domain, whether you call it data visualization, information visualization, visual analytics, or the new name that I’m beginning to float—BizViz—lives at the heart of business intelligence. The Gartner Group, which coined the term business intelligence, defines it as:

An interactive process for exploring and analyzing structured and domain-specific information to discern trends or patterns, thereby deriving insights and drawing conclusions. The business intelligence process includes communicating findings and effecting change.

(Source: A glossary on the web site www.gartner.com)

If this is indeed the essence of business intelligence, then no tools and techniques contribute more directly and completely to this endeavor than the visualization tools and techniques that make visible in an unparalleled way the meaningful trends and patterns in information that must be discerned to make intelligence business decisions.

As business intelligence professionals, let’s not lose sight of our mission, which is not to throw more on the growing heap of data that already overwhelms decisions makers today, but to help people make sense of information that matters and to deliver the meaning that they find to decision makers as clearly and accurately as possible. Only then can businesses function intelligently. This is a worthwhile challenge that cannot be resolved by simply throwing more technology at it. To produce business intelligence, we need to bring a great deal of our own intelligence to this process and keep our eyes on what really matters and what really works.

I believe that many of the best business intelligence solutions involve tools and techniques that present to our eyes—our most powerful sensors by far—meaningful patterns and trends that live in data in an easily recognizable and informative way. Most of the musings in this blog of mine will invite you to think with me about these matters and will hopefully help us all to open our eyes.

And now, in a blatant attempt to begin this blog on a provocative note, I’ll throw out a statement that is bound to rouse a response: “Most business intelligence software vendors don’t understand data visualization.” Even their basic charting functionality is embarrassing. There are a few notable exceptions, but most vendors haven’t a clue. As a result, they focus on cuteness rather than effectiveness, on visualizations that have more in common with video games than the tried and true designs that have been demonstrated to work. They ought to be experts in this field, because it is critical to effective business intelligence. They’ll only become experts when their customers stop asking to be entertained with flash and dazzle and begin to demand effective visual analysis and communication functionality that is firmly rooted in an understanding of how people see and think. This is where you come in if you’re one of their customers. Take the time to learn what works and then demand it. I’ll do what I can to help.


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