People 'n' Issues

Painting a picture with data

July 22nd, 2015
Visual data analytics is a lot like painting a picture. The image might not look like much in the beginning, but after time a picture starts to take shape and you’re left with something that speaks louder than words, writes GREATERMAN NKOMO of SAS.

Visual communication is nothing new. Our ancestors used paintings and carvings to make sense of their environment, and it seems they were on to something – research has found that 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual, and that visuals are processed 60 000 times faster in the brain than text.

Much like cave dwellers back in the day, today’s businesses are also trying to make sense of the data-driven world they operate in. But there’s a bigger picture involved. If they want to increase their competitiveness, it’s not enough just to understand the environment; the real value lies in the ability to use data to improve decision-making and performance, predict the future and mitigate risk.

Yet businesses still struggle to cope with the exponentially increasing volumes of data generated internally and externally by clients and partners. They are still looking for more efficient ways to store and retrieve data rather than focusing on the value hidden in that data. Traditional architectures are also not designed to deliver the fast analytical processing needed for rapid insights, a problem that is worsened by the fact that data is still stored in silos in many organisations, providing a fragmented view of the business and any potential opportunities or risks.

Fostering a culture of analytics

Businesses can no longer afford to operate this way – and they don’t have to. Modern visual analytics tools provide a complete platform for analytics visualisation, enabling businesses to identify patterns and relationships in data that were not initially evident. Drag-and-drop functionality and automatic visualisation puts business intelligence into the hands of even the most statistic-averse team member, allowing anyone to visually explore data without having to call on the data scientist or IT department.

This creates a decision-making culture within organisations, equipping people with the tools they need to gain insight into complex problems in order to make well-informed, business-changing decisions.

Follow the data breadcrumbs

Just as artists experiment with different techniques and colour combinations to produce different effects, so can people play around with data to uncover the unexpected. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to visual analytics. Bring whatever data you have – your oils, pastels and acrylic paint, if you will – integrate it with social media and other web data, and see what happens. The data doesn’t have to make sense at first – the beauty of visual analytics software is that everything is automatic – you only need to follow the data’s lead and let it paint its own picture. Automated analytics makes value extraction easy. In-memory processing makes it fast. Businesses can explore billions of rows of data, without the need to subset or sample it, to identify new patterns, explore hidden relationships, test hypotheses in seconds, and share those insights with the right people, at the right time, in a format that they can understand, whether that’s on a desktop or mobile device. These reports enable collaborative, engaging discussions that can drive deeper insights – and better decisions.

Don’t know why you’re losing customers? Analytics can show you where the churn is happening and you may be surprised to know that it has something to do with the service they get from your call centre, for example. How do you know this? By analysing the sentiment of what people are saying about your business on social media and comments on other online platforms, which can be conveniently displayed in a format that the decision makers understand. By digging deeper, you may find that it’s not the call centre staff that are providing the bad service, but perhaps dropped calls and poor quality lines due to ageing infrastructure. The knee-jerk response might have been to retrain your call centre staff rather than replace your equipment; through scenario planning and predictive analytics, you can save thousands in lost time and money.

Ultimately, everyone, in any role, is a decision-maker. Having tools that present data in a way that is visual, easy to understand, fosters collaboration and supports mobility enables savvy businesses to recognise trends and use them as competitive differentiators. Visual data analytics might be messy at first, but with a bit of creativity and exploration, you could be left with a masterpiece that’s worth more than any amount of money could buy.

* Greaterman Nkomo, Account Executive, Visual Analytics, SAS

* Follow Gadget on Twitter on @GadgetZA

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