Data visualisation: a neglected Web 2.0 tool

It has many applications, says W. David Stephenson

When I was an environment strategist in the 1980s, I had a client who'd developed rudimentary software to visualise groundwater-pollution plumes. Even the most statistically minded hydro-geologist, when analysing reams of print-outs of monitoring wells, would have a difficult time analysing 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-visualisation 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 visualisation 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 visualisation options that bore audiences during PowerPoint presentations: line, pie and bar charts.

That's a shame, because there are several potential ways that organisations could benefit from richer data visualisations that display this information in more complex and insightful ways. For example:

-- Consider the reams of data you collect but which are only analysed historically. Instead, portray them dynamically, in real time, where they can help make immediate decisions

-- 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, etcetera

Even better, 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 visualisation 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 the University of Califiornia and neighbourhood 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.

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 visualisations.

So why haven't these new forms of data visualisation 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.

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

Data visualisation can help extricate vital data from dusty archives and transform it 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.