Data takes shape

Visualization tools work in different ways, but all give form to content for better analysis

The explosion in government data has created a boom in software tools that can analyze information and present it in charts, graphs and other images that people can quickly grasp.

These data visualization programs have moved beyond their birthplace in scientific and engineering graphics workstations to appeal to managers, Web buyers and anyone else with a need, or desire, to extract more value from dense, hard-to-read data tables and unstructured text. Like the data itself, they have branched off into subcategories'some well-known, others new and ill-defined.

Many data-visualization tools are sold as modules or features in business intelligence suites. They often come in the form of what are called executive dashboards, which collect and present graphical reports of organizational benchmarks and other critical information gleaned from multiple data sources'anything from spreadsheets to Oracle Corp. databases, e-commerce applications and Web pages.

Notable vendors in this category include Business Objects Americas Inc., Cognos Inc. and MicroStrategy Inc. The overall business intelligence market has seen modest but steady growth. Market researcher International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., said sales reached $3.7 billion last year and could grow to $4.5 billion by 2007.

Geographic information systems vendors, among them ESRI and MapInfo Corp., increasingly promote new uses for their data-aware maps, helping government agencies depict census information, environmental quality measurements and other data that can be organized by location.

'The GIS market is basically flat,' said David Sonnen, IDC's senior consultant for geospatial information. While these companies retain their historical geocentricity, their visualization modules, such as ESRI's ArcView Business Analyst, can double as more abstract tools nearly on par with general-purpose visualization software.

'You can use the products to show any information, as long as it has a coordinate system,' said David Maguire, ESRI's director of products.

Some companies, including Advanced Visual Systems and Advizor Solutions Inc., promiscuously work as visual front ends to other companies' database and business intelligence applications. Advizor recently became an option in Business Objects' dashboard, for example.

Partnering and 'co-opetition' are unusually common in this industry; many vendors have similar relationships. And most of their products will work with big search engines from Autonomy Inc. of San Francisco, Verity Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., and others that crawl and categorize unstructured organizational and Web information, overlaying it with taxonomies that the visualization tools can then pump into scatter plots and bar graphs.

Inxight Software Inc., whose customers include the Agriculture Department and the Army, does some of both with its Inxight SmartDiscovery 3.0 taxonomy software and Inxight VizServer for presenting the resulting SmartDiscovery data in graphical form.

Navigable maps

More recently, a handful of startups are tackling a related but critically different challenge: creating navigable maps of large databases. Typically they deal with Web sites, but it can be any large data store and their structures and descriptions, called metadata.

The Grokker tools from Groxis Inc. and Visual Net from competitor Antarctica Systems Inc. are two prominent examples of these new, comparatively lightweight data-visualization interfaces that also double as navigation aids. But many dashboard and other data visualization vendors also claim their products serve these dual roles.

Antarctica recently presented its offerings to 22 federal groups, including the Army, said Antarctica's chief technology officer and founder Tim Bray, best known as co-inventor of the Extensible Markup Language.

'They have a perception that they have a lot of high-value information that they want to [deliver to] workers'which could be soldiers'but the user interface wasn't good enough,' Bray said.

It's no surprise that Bray's XML background would lead to data visualization. XML is, after all, a standard for data exchange, and Bray and other vendors say the growth of related enabling technologies, especially Web services, are creating a new world of opportunity in large, networked databases.

New tools such as Grokker, and the business intelligence dashboards and visualization modules, could be in even greater demand as organizations expose more of their data to other organizations and applications over the Web. That could mean another quantum leap is coming in the amount and sophistication of data, which will make more Web services tools such as Grokker and Visual Net not only possible, but necessary.

The products in the accompanying chart are mostly server programs designed to facilitate easy access from users' desktops. Not included are scientific and engineering-oriented desktop software for high-powered graphics workstations.

Experts offer simple advice to buyers: Understand the nature and scope of your data, make sure it's maintained on an adequate storage and network infrastructure, and choose visualization software that can scale to meet future demand.

David Essex is a free-lance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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