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Now You See It

Graphs, maps, animations, and other visual displays of information may succeed where spreadsheets fail.

Another project entails the creation of a system that models what financial traders do all day. Lo explains that traders typically serve long apprenticeships as they learn to look at dozens of different data points on various monitors and derive intelligence from them.

The LFE hopes to represent the text and numbers that traders stare at all day as icons or simple graphical objects that have a more immediate, intuitive meaning — one that, says Lo only half joking, would allow a reasonably bright 13-year-old to be a trader. “Something like that,” he says, “could change the perception of visualization as being something more than simply a ‘nice-to-have.’”

Lo is alluding to the fact that Corporate America has, for the most part, turned a blind eye toward data visualization. For every company such as London-based pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline, where, according to site head and director of ChemInformatics Frances Stewart, “employees love to play with it so much that we can’t pour the data into it fast enough,” there are a dozen others that see it as a frill, or worse.

“It can be like going to Las Vegas,” complains Thomas Weatherford, CFO of San Jose, California-based Business Objects, a business-intelligence software maker that does in fact offer some basic forms of visualization and is rolling them out to its own finance department now. “Simple visualization, as in a dashboard, can be useful,” he says, “but the underlying analytics matter more than the presentation.”

Color My World

At Beverage Can Americas Co. in Chicago, a division of London-based Rexam Plc, Paul E. Martin, vice president and CIO, believes in data visualization. But he agrees that it doesn’t have to get fancy.

As part of a business process “E-enablement” project, his firm is rolling out executive dashboards and scorecards to thousands of employees. Each worker sees a handful of metrics that pertain to his or her job, which are represented as green, yellow, or red icons depending on whether they are satisfactory, borderline, or subpar.

That’s not the sort of deployment that will prompt workers to play with the data for hours, but Martin says it’s proving invaluable. “Before we rolled out visualization as part of this effort,” he says, “we would have had to calculate these metrics offline, using spreadsheets, faxes, and pulling numbers from people’s heads.”

Now data is pulled from various transactional systems. It’s then crunched to give a quick visual read on, say, inventory levels, raw-materials prices, order volumes, quality-control checks, and so on.

The system relies on software from Burlington, Massachusetts-based Cognos Inc., which has found success with the Visualizer component of its business intelligence suite.

But Don Campbell, Cognos’s vice president of product innovation and technology, admits that data visualization is still something of a secret. “After companies use it, they wonder how they got along without it,” he says. “But it’s rare that people will ask for it unless they’ve seen it somewhere else.”

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