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More Map, Less Quest

New ways to visualize data are helping companies close the ''fact gap.''

Maps are back. More than a decade ago, geographic information systems took population and demographic data from the Census Bureau and other sources and gave businesses new ways to see opportunities, literally. Consumers could be segmented by zip code, for example, or regional sales could be analyzed with maximum granularity, the results writ large on color-coded maps. The immediacy of the visual presentation was not lost, particularly for those falling below quota.

The advent of the global positioning system (GPS) has added a new technological wrinkle: the dynamic mapping it makes possible now creates an entirely new universe of applications. Today, for example, if your dishwasher goes on the fritz and you call a Sears service center, odds are good that the technician will find your home by using mapping software and a laptop computer. True, you can buy or rent a car with the same feature. But in this case, Sears isn’t simply replacing a paper map or a cell phone with an incrementally better solution, it’s combining that mapping capability with wireless data applications that not only get the driver there faster but also usher in a raft of bottom-line improvements.

“We strongly believe the future belongs to those companies that successfully innovate and use technology to drive down costs and increase service levels,” says David Sankey, director of process and technology development at Sears Product Repair Services in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

Sears isn’t alone in looking for new ways of “seeing” with visualization tools. Many companies are looking for ways to cope with information overload. While dashboards and other techniques continue to gain in popularity, maps are proving surprisingly versatile as well, even for deskbound workers.

“Academic research shows that we can’t keep more than seven data points in our head at one time,” says Dan Vesset, research director for business analytics at research firm IDC. “If you have a table with more than seven rows and multiple columns, you very quickly get lost.”

The versatility of spreadsheets is beyond question, but when a company needs to locate a new store or identify the site of a power outage, numbers don’t tell the story nearly as well. “With some applications, you can look at a spreadsheet all day long, but rows and columns will never show you the pattern that emerges on a map instantly,” says Robert Hazelton, technical director at Information Builders Inc., a business-intelligence software company in New York.

According to IDC, the market for interactive data visualization tools will grow by 7.5 percent a year through 2007, reaching almost $7 billion. The category includes software ranging from visually-intensive engineering applications and image editing software to geospatial information management tools and animation software. Also included is a segment of business intelligence that brings data visualization to executives, line-of-business managers, and analysts. It provides a number of ways to present data visually, such as maps, diagrams, stoplights, flashing alerts, decision trees, and dashboards. Several kinds of business-intelligence software vendors are adding visualization, frequently through licensing agreements with niche providers that do business with the governmental, scientific/engineering, and academic communities.

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