Visualization drives home big data's value

Big data typically combines a variety of business intelligence and analytic tools to provide organizations with fresh insights from their data. But that’s only half the picture. IT executives are beginning to recognize how much more they see with the aid of visualization tools.

Analytics and business intelligence is the fastest growing software market today, according to research firm Gartner. The global market for BI is expected to reach $13.8 billion this year and shoot to more than $17 billion in 2016. Big data and “data-as-a-service” are the growth factors for the segment’s upward trajectory.

It might stand to reason then that all it takes to start a big data project is some basic analytics software and a few good on-staff experts. However, experts say basic analytics is only part of the equation.

Another essential part of that equation is visualization software, which translates raw data into a graphical presentation, which humans can understand more intuitively.

“Big data needs an integrated approach -- one that combines analytics and visualization software,” explains Alex Rossino, a principle research analyst at Deltek. “You can’t just have analytics and expect it to solve all your problems.”

Picture this

Visualization is important because data, in its raw form, can be difficult to analyze, even for the most savvy IT and knowledge workers. In addition, traditional BI tools are designed for traditional data that’s stored in relational databases. Visualization provides a framework for working with the wider range of data types that might be combined in big data applications.

For example, an application could take a county map and lay specific data points over it: incidents of driving-while-intoxicated fatalities, socioeconomic data, the locations and coverage of local law enforcement. Presented visually, the results might help government officials determine to beef up policing or where to install extra safety measures, such as guard rails or impact-softening barriers.

Agencies also might extend visualization applications to constituents, says David Loshin, president of Knowledge Integrity Inc, a consultancy that focuses on business data management advice and guidance.

For example, an application might be created to show how the U.S. House of Representatives is voting. “People complain that lobbyists have that information, and they do because they’re on the floor, but you could take that voting data and make a graphical representation so that constituents were as much in the know as lobbyists.”

Visualization also helps IT and its users uncover what might not be obvious to the untrained eye. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cyber Security Research and Development Center uses visualization to identify patterns in network flow data and metadata that could signal denial of service attacks and other cyber attacks and criminal behavior.

Once people can see information in graphical format, the message of data can really hit home, says Ed Parsons, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Parsons worked on a project about with the U.K.’s Hadley Centre, a government agency charged with tracking climate change. At the time, there was no way to take the data that had been collected and visualize it in an impactful way, he explained at the Aspen Ideas Festival session, “Visualizing our Future through the Lens of Big Data.” Few people watched the YouTube clips of the climate change announcement or went to the website detailing the news. However, only a few years later he was able to use big data and visualization to demonstrate at the street level the impact and water level after the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

“Often our heart is more powerful than our brain when we really want to drive home a message,” Parsons said at the conference. People, whether c-level executives, constituents or voters, are more moved by what they can see than what they can hear.