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Visualize This

Are your BI reporting end users getting weary of cutting and pasting data? Is compelling business evidence languishing in databases? It's time to rethink your data visualization tools.

Visualize ThisIT'S ONE THING TO manage the use of data; it's another thing to use data to lead transformative change at your institution. The latter requires more than the raw numbers; it demands that you tell a story. Transformative change not only requires that the case you make for change draws upon the evidence found in the systems that run your institution, it also requires that you present that evidence in a dramatic or, at least, compelling way that will leave a lasting impression in the minds of those who must make decisions. Communicating or presenting information to drive change is one of the most important outcomes of a successful business intelligence (BI) initiative. How clearly you can demonstrate the evidence you have found often can make the difference between a case for change gone bad, or defining a wholly new strategic direction for your organization.

Get Visual

Often, however, complex information must be presented in a very short amount of time to audiences such as the president's cabinet, dean's committee, or board of trustees. To make your case effectively, you will need to present your evidence quickly and with a high degree of impact. Since most people are visual creatures, it would stand to reason that you should represent your data in a visual fashion. One way to do this is through the use of an info-graphic. You've seen these artistic, highly detailed charts and graphs before: tracking pop culture in The New York Times, analyzing a blog post in Wired magazine, or even imparting cheeky news analysis in USA Today.

Today, you don't even need an annual report designer to make this kind of statement: A new breed of visualization software is emerging to help campus businesspeople produce more compelling representations of their evidence and provide greater access to the information for intended audiences. At the same time, traditional BI software vendors are adding new features to their suites to make it easier for end users or decision-makers to tell their stories.

Before that story can be told, understand that with the use of any new tools or features, there are two challenges inherent: First are the everyday associated issues of presentation, collaboration, and sharing. We've all heard the horror stories about spending hours cutting and pasting figures into Microsoft Excel, and linking the resulting chart to PowerPoint just to create a basic “numbers” visualization. Then there's the challenge of deciding how best to present the data. Which approach will get you closer to the “beautiful evidence” espoused by data visualization guru Edward Tufte?

Dynamic Visualization Options for External Audiences

Increasingly, institutions have found that they must share information with audiences outside of the campus administration. In an effort to be transparent to prospective students, parents, and the community at large, institutions have begun to publish facts and sometimes detailed statistics about institutional outcomes. Most of the time, these “accountability” websites are dotted with Adobe Acrobat PDF documents containing text and a few simple charts. Sometimes the sites contain static HTML pages with graphics that have been lifted from a BI software program and pasted into the page. Either way, production of these pages involves many steps. But wouldn't it be great if your charts and graphs on the web were updated automatically at the end of each academic term, when the data are refreshed?

Google Chart API. If you are willing to put your trust in one of the most ubiquitous names on the web, check out the recently released Google application programming interface (API) designed for presenting charts and graphs on any web page. The new service allows developers and technically inclined administrators, using a well-documented set of parameters, to pass a data set to a web service hosted on Google's servers. The result: a number of chart or graph types available for use, ready to be embedded on a website of your choosing.

Why not simply use the web-based portals provided by any one of the major BI vendors (such as Business Objects, Cognos, or SAS), to display such information to the public? Unfortunately, most vendors employ “per user” licensing models that make such a solution cost-prohibitive for most institutions. But a service such as the Google Chart API gets around this costly limitation and can help you unlock specific information for eyes beyond the campus gate.

Low-cost software. If the idea of a hosted service does not appeal to you, there are low-cost software options available to help you present appealing web visualizations to broader audiences. Take a look at amCharts: For $425, you get an enterprise license to produce simple, yet truly impressive dynamic charts and graphs. With a tool like amCharts you can, for example, provide a real-time, self-updating graph to institutional alumni and friends, depicting progress toward a particular fundraising goal. Since the graph is dynamically updated on a regular basis, it can even demonstrate momentum and encourage more participation from active donors.

Powerful Data Visualization for Internal Eyes

Though these examples of real-time web-based visualizations may spur site visitors into action, the real challenge for higher ed administrators is internal change. Here again are new approaches in desktop software that make it easier for users to produce high-impact data visualizations, and simultaneously overcome the challenge of distribution of data across the institution.

Intuitive and user-friendly. Tableau Software, for one, takes data that have been structured for multi-dimensional reporting and provides a drag-and-drop style interface that helps end users intuitively create a variety of sophisticated visualizations. The company emphasizes the unique visualization query language (VizQL) as the key to helping “people with little or no training see and understand data faster than ever, and in ways like never before.” To help end users share their reports, a free “reader” is available for download, or a server version can be purchased for publishing to the web.

A new breed of visualization software is emerging, while at the same time, traditional BI software vendors are adding new features to their suites to make it easier for end users to tell their stories.

Look again at Excel. One tool that can't be ignored when it comes to the distribution of information and visualizations is Excel. Maybe you've sneered at the relative blandness of graphs produced through Excel's chart wizard, but the fact is that the product is ubiquitous—so ubiquitous, in fact, that nearly all of the major BI vendors have produced add-ins and special interfaces to surface information through Excel. Most recently, Business Objects released a new product, Xcelsius 2008, which uses Excel as the presentation engine for dashboards and dynamic data visualizations, taking advantage of Excel's pervasiveness, and so easing the distribution of data. Take a look!

The 800-pound gorilla. Then, of course, there is Microsoft. Many institutions have already made significant investments in Microsoft technology for a variety of reasons, and yours may be one of them. Once you have upgraded to the latest versions of Microsoft's SQL Server 2005 and Office 2007, you may be surprised to find that you already own an enterprise-class business intelligence engine. Moreover, did you know that Microsoft has placed considerable emphasis on the communication aspect of data analysis and has improved the visualization features significantly? With true integration between Excel and PowerPoint, users will be able to produce great-looking boardroom-ready reports that are updated automatically when the source data are refreshed. And, just in case you doubt Redmond's commitment to business intelligence, Microsoft has recently unveiled several updates to its core technologies to support business intelligence and improve data visualization, including an all-new version of SQL Server (2008, to be released in the third quarter of the year) and its dashboard and performance management solution, PerformancePoint Server.

The Last Word

While each of the tools I've highlighted has the potential to make an end user's high-quality data visualization job much easier, make no mistake: Despite their ease of use, BI visualization solutions are not plug-and-play. It will be important for institutions to carefully consider business intelligence and data warehouse solutions that provide open and expandable information architectures, in order to leverage the types of visualization tools I have presented here. With the right framework in place, one or more of these tools will likely be the perfect complement, helping your key campus decision-makers to make the case for a change that propels your institution toward greatness.

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