Software lets users envision problems and solutions

If you’re a client of Deltek Systems Inc. and your account is in arrears, be aware that when the company managers and directors meet, your name shows up on a computer screen in big red letters.

This sounds primitive, but like many businesses, Deltek, a McLean, Va.-based professional services automation company, is just scratching the surface when it comes to data visualization. The technology, rooted in scientific applications, is now being merged with statistical analysis software. The goal is to replace reports and tables with powerful, eye-catching images that convey important statistical data to even casual users.

Users of the technology rave about its ability to help business people quickly grasp huge quantities of data, and experts say data visualization will quickly be merged into standard data analysis tools. But users complain that visualization products still have a ways to go where ease of use is concerned.

Until recently, most corporate information technology managers viewed data visualization technology as a toy for scientists or as a nice business tool that couldn’t find mainstream traction. But experts say that’s finally changing for three reasons.

First, computer power has finally caught up with the technology. “A few years ago, you needed a US$20,000 Silicon Graphics workstation to use visualization,” said Don Campbell, Ottawa-based Cognos Inc.’s vice president of information delivery products. But that isn’t the case anymore; new tools can run on desktops in a typical corporate environment, he said.

Second, the demand for business data is fearsome – and it’s growing all the time. Even the most hard-core bean counters, born in Lotus 1-2-3 and raised on Excel, must work hard to pull the significant or potentially threatening numbers from spreadsheets. Data visualization makes those numbers impossible to miss and easy to grasp by everyone.

“These types of tools can help you more quickly adjust your mind and pinpoint information without having to interpret it,” said Bob Moran, an analyst at Boston-based Aberdeen Group Inc. “It helps you see relationships by looking at a chart.”

This is a vital point. Experts say data visualization software’s ability to accentuate the relationships among data points is one of its major benefits. Moreover, e-commerce has put a premium on real-time data. In some sectors, it’s critical to keep an eye on your own site traffic and your competitors’ in order to see who’s winning, what promotions are working, where the traffic’s coming from and so on.

Data visualization makes this possible. Rather than having to wait for reports or compare sterile columns of numbers, it’s now possible to use a browser interface to gaze in real time at your vital e-business numbers.

The final and perhaps most significant reason for data visualization’s growth spurt is that vendors with deep roots in data analysis software – including Cognos, Naperville, Ill.-based Visual Insights and SPSS Inc. in Chicago – are building the technology into their product lines.

Keith Gile, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group Inc., said that just as data mining has faded into the background as a stand-alone discipline but is more widely used than ever as the backbone of customer relationship management applications, data visualization will be folded in as the expected interface for statistical-analysis software.

From Analysis to Synthesis

Deltek uses Cognos’ Visualizer 1.5 to synthesize analyses gleaned from other Cognos tools into an easy-to-understand presentation. “It lets us learn which projects are most profitable (and) which regions have the highest concentration of clients,” said Shimi Minhas, Deltek’s director of business intelligence. “You can immediately ID those hot spots, then drill down to the detail.”

Deltek has used Visualizer for about six months, Minhas said. Because the company is a long-time user of Cognos’ data analysis tools, Deltek didn’t consider competing vendors’ products. Regional and project managers liked stepping up from spreadsheets and reports because “they say they can make faster decisions,” Minhas said.

Paid-up accounts appear in green, 30-day accounts in yellow and delinquent in red. “In looking at a Visualizer (presentation) of accounts receivable balances, we can quickly ID which clients are not up-to-date,” Minhas said.

Although Deltek is happy with Visualizer, Minhas said, it can be difficult to understand for end users unaccustomed to other Cognos products.

Houston-based energy company Enron Corp. found that risk management was a natural application for data visualization. “Risk management involves complex mathematical principals, and the results are not intuitive,” said Rudi Zipter, Enron’s director of market risk management. Enron develops energy and bandwidth portfolios, which it then trades like commodities. “We like to analyze and decompose risk across the portfolios,” Zipter said.

Zipter’s department started using Visual Insights’ Advizor/2000 late last year. He said it “results in a keener insight of risk” because it “allows you to see where risk is coming from.” Recently, the risk management department was certain that the risk in a certain portfolio was coming from one source. But, he said, “by putting traders’ portfolios in a 3-D visualization, we could see right away” that they had misidentified the problem area.

Advizor/2000 accepts standard Excel tables as input. It also accepts on-line analytical processing “cubes” – structures that store multidimensional information – that are created in Microsoft Corp.’s SQL Server