Data visualization: the underappreciated Web 2.0 tool

There are many data-visualization tools, from tag clouds to real-time monitoring, which give you a range of options about how to turn data into visual information that can be important strategic-planning assets.

Back when I was an environment strategist in the 1980s, I had a client who’d developed rudimentary software to visualize groundwater-pollution plumes. Even the most statistically minded hydro-geologist, when analyzing reams of print-outs of monitoring wells, would have a difficult time analyzing what the data really meant, let alone conveying the information to laymen. Where was the contamination’s source? Where was it heading? How fast?

By contrast, when you opened this program, in seconds you could see surface landmarks (bear in mind, this was long before Google Earth!), and see where the plume originated, where it was flowing, and the rate.

Fast forward to 2008. There are many more of these data-visualization tools, from tag clouds to real-time monitoring, which give you a range of options about how to turn data into visual information that can be important strategic-planning assets.

Yet, despite the fact they are Web 2.0 tools, and thus available for free from a variety of sources, data visualization lags far behind other Web 2.0 tools, such as wikis, blogs, and RSS feeds, as corporate management resources. Instead, we’re usually limited to visualization options that typically bore audiences to tears during PowerPoint presentations: line, pie and bar charts.

That’s a shame, because of several potential benefits that corporations could realize from richer data visualizations that display this information in more complex and insightful ways:

* Take reams of data you collect but are only analyzed historically (I liken it to the last Indiana Jones scene, where the Ark is boxed and stored in a government warehouse: you know it will never be seen again!). Instead, portray them dynamically, in real time, where they can help make immediate decisions.

* Facilitate gathering perspectives from others, especially in free-flowing exchanges that can evoke the “wisdom of crowds” phenomenon, in which the final product of everyone’s contributions is more insightful than the sum of its parts.

* Empower younger employees, and/or those with a special passion about or insights into more obscure issues, who might be reluctant in more hierarchical, linear processes to share their perspectives.

* Rapidly identify “outlier” data, which may identify flaws in marketing or product design that don’t reach these potential audiences.

* Relate a wide range of data, such as time, location and sales volume, that formerly were treated in isolation from each other but would be more informative if considered simultaneously.

* Consider the relative benefits and drawbacks of alternative strategies by making it easy to compare and contrast them.

* Understand, through geospatial representations, possible public opposition to siting of new facilities because of proximity to neighborhoods, landmarks, etc.

Best yet, a variety of free, public tools are available on the Web that allow you to take the same data and experiment with a wide variety of data visualization alternatives to see which one (or several) are most appropriate to your own needs.

They include: Google Maps, IBM’s Many Eyes, Microsoft’s PopFly, and Swivel

A couple of uses from the public sector will give you an idea of the benefits:

NKLA is a collaboration of UCLA and neighborhood groups. To try to save threatened urban neighborhoods by focusing services before they really decline, the project mashes up seven indicators of urban decay, from code violations to unpaid property taxes, on a Google Map. If there’s one indicator on a block, big deal. If there are five of the seven, you’d better intervene ASAP!

The District of Columbia’s Citywide Data Warehouse releases, on a real-time basis, more than 150 databases the city compiles, from pothole complaints to violent crime. Interested individuals can then use the data as the source for a wide range of visualizations.

So why haven’t these new forms of data visualization achieved greater penetration in the corporate world. Not surprisingly, the reasons are some of the same ones cited for resistance to other Web 2.0 tools:

General resistance to new tools from older employees.

Concern that the information may get distorted by non-experts.

Security.

My advice on how to counter these fears is similar to that given for other Web 2.0 apps. First, get over it: Your employees, especially those under 30, are probably using some of them without your approval. Aladdin couldn’t put the genie back in the lamp, nor can you: concentrate your energy on how to harness their power while preserving security, etc.

Also, since nothing is more powerful than a successful example, instead of introducing data visualization companywide at first, try gradual implementation, such as allowing a few enthusiastic early adopters to use it for a small project, then document the benefits.

No matter whether you’re a whiz at numbers or a right-brained type who avoids them whenever possible, data visualization can help you extricate vital data from dusty archives and transform them into invaluable strategic tools. Gotta problem? Draw a picture!

Stephenson, of Stephenson Strategies in Medfield, Mass., is a consultant using Web 2.0 tools for innovative strategies in homeland security, e-gov and general management.

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