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The key to understanding data? Seeing it properly

Why data visualization is the next frontier for data modernization.

A few years ago, just as organizations began their mad rush to digitally transform, Senthil Gandhi recalls being in the middle of a heavy, data-intensive, multiyear application development project that was going nowhere fast.

For some reason, the underlying dynamic database his team depended on was bogging down, and the debugging tools they used daily weren't helping to uncover the source of the problem. In fact, they were delivering so much data that it wasn't humanly impossible to sort through it all and reach a working theory.

Not surprisingly, with progress stalling, unhappy business leaders were threatening to shelve the project.

Please read: How to avoid dumb data visualization mistakes

"That's when we started investigating interactive visualization techniques," says Gandhi, now a principal scientist in the AI and data practice at HPE Pointnext Services. "We took a few months to build a tool that let us analyze the data and see it on a screen, much like you do with Google Maps. We were able to quickly zero in on the source of the problem. It was right there on the computer screen, and we were immediately overwhelmed with emotion while thinking, 'Why didn't we do this two years ago?'"

As datasets continue to explode, organizations are increasingly turning to visualization features in business intelligence (BI), analytics, and location intelligence (LI) tools to solve business challenges.

Data visualization tools taking flight

In fact, the global data visualization tools market is expected to reach $11.79 billion by 2028 compared with $5.36 billion today, according to Verified Market Research.

"Many organizations rushed into cloud computing and digital transformation a few years ago only to find they'd generated tons of useful data that only the most technical among them could fully understand and appreciate," says Gandhi. "Now, visualization tools are making it possible for any worker to derive useful, actionable insights from data. That capability is really accelerating the need for this technology."

Definitions of data visualization vary. At the simplest level, data visualization is the representation or illustration of data through graphics such as charts, plots, animations, and infographics. Dataversity goes a step further, saying data visualizations is all about combining contextual information (metadata) and actual data, making it more straightforward for people to mentally process and analyze.

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That mental aspect is vitally important given that most businesses today must compete around delivering superior, personalized customer experiences. Companies collect an estimated 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. That is likely to accelerate with enterprise-generated edge data expected to account for 75 percent of all digital information by 2025, according to Gartner. If organizations cannot fully understand the customer aspects of all that, their ability to deliver differentiated, personalized experiences will be hampered.

The human brain can process only so much information. It's said our conscious minds can handle about 40 to 50 pieces of information a second. That's quite a bit. But keep in mind that includes everything happening in and around us—everything we see, hear, smell, feel, and taste. If we have a number-heavy Excel spreadsheet in front of us, our brains bog down and our eyes glaze over after a while. We do not consume information as completely or accurately. We fail to make connections or see trends. Many times, we fast-forward and launch into action because we don't have the time or patience to sort through all the data. And often, the decisions we make in these cases are less effective. Sometimes, they're even disastrous.

Being able to visualize data, however, makes things faster and easier because we are hardwired to process information that way. Indeed, 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual. And we supposedly process visual information 60,000 times faster than we do with text.

Every picture tells a story

In a business setting, the advantages of delivering data visually to workers are potentially significant. Rather than paying people to spend hours upon hours trying to sort through complex contextual information, you allow them to see, consider, and act upon their options more quickly. They can identify important trends and business opportunities a little easier. They're also able to spot potential land mines, such as social, political, or environmental changes likely to lead to drop-offs in customer sentiment and sales.

"Excellence in data visualization is critical to everyone, from executives and managers assessing predictive insights for strategy, to frontline operational employees making daily decisions and solving real-time situations, to citizens doing quantitative analysis on their own with public data," says David Stodder, senior director of research for business intelligence at TDWI. "However, because visualization is so central and today's tools are so powerful, it's important for users to learn how to avoid clutter, make sure data relationships are presented accurately, and use charts and graphs that are fit for purpose and effectively tell the story."

Please read: Start making sense: Building modern data platforms

This "data storytelling" capability is increasingly automated with machine learning (as opposed to being generated by data scientists). And it's becoming a common component of many self-service BI and analytics tools, such as Microsoft PowerBI, Google Looker, Yellowfin, and Sisense. Indeed, Gartner says data storytelling will be the most widespread means of consuming analytics by 2025.

The benefit of data storytelling is that it enables workers to more effectively and memorably share business or operationally relevant information across an organization, says Gandhi. "Visualized storytelling flows through an organization like butter," he says. "As soon as I email a link to interactive visualizations, I'll have people from the CEO on down responding. Text-only communications are rarely that successful. The difference is palpable."

Adding a layer of location

While many organizations think in terms of visualizing data related to their own business, customers, or partners, they are also increasingly rolling in location-based information for context.

An insurer deciding whether to pay off a supposed flood victim's claim, for instance, might know from the data that they reside in a hurricane-prone area. But location data showing where a recent hurricane hit, superimposed over a flood zone map, might quickly show the claimant's home wasn't likely impacted. Similarly, a company trying to limit transportation costs could gather route, gasoline, and location-based weather information and visually represent it on mobile apps carried by its drivers.

Joe Francica, senior director of geospatial strategy at Korem, a geographic information solution provider, says maps from Precisely, Google, and others will always be relevant. But more often these days, geospatial processing is being embedded, under the covers, in major workflows.

"GIS or geospatial technology is becoming general-purpose software, like word processors and spreadsheets," Francica says. "It's not just LI companies like Esri or Precisely providing this kind of visualization. Now, you see other data platforms like Microsoft, AWS, Google, and Oracle with it as well. Because of the increased data volumes, they're in the ball game too. They really have seen and recognized the value of location."

Gandhi says all sorts of visual data types are likely to end up in common workflows.

"Data visualization shouldn't be something that you call out as a separate capability; it needs to be as integral and common to everyday workflows as flour and yeast are to bread," says Gandhi. "In the future, I think there will be more interactive visualizations, so you'll not only be able to see but better understand data as well by actively manipulating a variety of related images. This will probably even be offered as an online service. I think that's where the industry is headed."

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.