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More Map, Less Quest

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

The Sound of All Hands Mapping

The insurance industry belatedly discovered the power of visual representation following the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. “There was a tremendous concentration of risk in lower Manhattan,” says James Bisker, director of insurance research at TowerGroup. “Not just the buildings themselves, but how much was insured by one company in each building.” That data lends itself well to visual analysis, he says, but “because the information was buried in tabular reports, it wasn’t as obvious.”

Gen Re Intermediaries (GRI) has used mapping software for years to model its exposure. Now it’s sharing this capability as part of its competitive strategy, allowing customers to check their own catastrophe exposure via the Internet, looking for geographic hot spots — too little (or too much) earthquake coverage in California, for example.

Mapping capabilities can now be integrated with other enterprise software applications such as ERP, CRM, SCM, and business-intelligence systems. These systems hold vast amounts of data, and just getting to it can be a challenge. “If you’ve ever tried to retrieve information from an ERP system on a particular physical asset, you typically go through four or five screens and may have to rely on a little cheat sheet to remember different asset codes,” says Steve Benner, director of strategic accounts at GIS developer ESRI Inc. in Redlands, California. “Mapping software lets you see the asset visually and provides direct access to data in the ERP system by simply clicking the asset on the map.”

Mapping software can also show at a glance where resources such as field workers are in relation to one another and lets you use spatial functions to query data. You could ask, for example, “What percent of our sales comes from customers within a 15-minute drive time of our stores?”

GIS software varies considerably in price, from $995 for a single seat at a small business to $500,000 for large companies, which typically spend another $500,000 for implementation and staff training. Even at those prices, analysts say ROI is often quick, particularly if companies haven’t made use of mapping previously.

So what’s holding companies back? “It’s a complete mind shift for most businesspeople to even begin considering ways that map-based representations can be used in their work,” says Information Builders’s Hazelton. But as more software vendors build mapping and other forms of visualization into their products, people’s eyes may open.

Connie Winkler writes about management technology from Seattle.

The Big Picture, in Words

Despite today’s zeal for presenting data visually, sometimes a word is still worth a thousand pictures — or at least a handful of rows and columns. So says Sageworks Inc., a Raleigh, North Carolina-based software company whose ProfitCents product turns numbers into text.

“Graphs, pictures, and other displays may be easier to understand,” says Sageworks CEO Brian Hamilton, “but they depict numbers rather than address the basic question: ‘What is the big financial picture for the company?’ ” ProfitCents analyzes dozens of metrics, ratios, trends, and key comparisons, and produces a narrative summary. One evaluation of a firm’s assets, for example, begins: “The net profit margin fell as fixed assets were added. This generally means that the company is now less efficient with the new assets than it was previously without them.”

Plain English has proved a selling point for Sageworks’s customers, which range from large enterprise companies to midsize banks and accounting firms. “We give our customers the graphs and all that kind of data,” says Hamilton, a former CFO, “but we put it in language that they can easily understand.” CEOs and board members like it, he adds, because it answers the age-old question: “What does all this data actually mean?” —C.W.

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