Why are people so excited about data visualisation all of a sudden?

Why are people so excited about data visualisation all of a sudden?

The buzz about data visualisation has been around longer than you might think; it has been gaining momentum since the late 1990s.

In fact, in some ways, the moves began with the TQM revolution when Japanese manufacturers referred to visual representations of factory floor quality data as “magic lanterns.” Research has been progressing on how we absorb information and how we learn. There is now an even better understanding of the importance of visually represented data.

  • Two-thirds of stimuli reaching the brain are visual (Zaltman 1996)
  • 50% of the brain is devoted to processing visual images (Bates & Cleese 2001)
  • 80% of learning is visually based (American Optometric Assoc. 1991)
  • Only 7% of the meaning in communication is derived from verbal exchange.

We also understand that there are as many as 10 times the number of brain cells devoted to emotional response as there are to rational, word-driven thought. We process decisions at an emotional level in three seconds or less, while we can take far longer to confirm that decision rationally. Think of the expression: We make decisions emotionally and justify them rationally.

In 2000 Julius Kuhl wrote the Personality Systems Interaction Theory, which outlined how emotions influence decision-making and goal adoption. From this combination of research it is clear that visual stimulus is important to the decision-making process for most people. Since then technology companies have had 13 years to develop the technology to the point where we can create whatever image we can imagine along with tools to manipulate data to create different charts, graphs and images.

This has been applied to the challenge of understanding business information. Often in business reporting the people creating the reports are very focused on the detail of the data involved and so cannot see or perhaps ‘feel’ the complexity in interpreting the reports. Often the recipients of these reports are left not knowing where to begin in interpreting the output and give up before reaching a sensible decision point – some writers have called this “a failure to turn data into information”.

The research is now making it clear that presenting the reports in a graphical format or pictorially can significantly improve the reader’s rate of comprehension and ability to absorb the information. Good decisions can be made in seconds rather than hours or days thus improving the quality and pace decisions can be made at.

It is then no surprise that analytics tools have been developed over the past 10 years to extract information from complex arrays of data to make it easier to digest in pictorial format. Some of these tools are part of large proprietary software systems and are expensive to gain access to, but there are also a range of products that are vendor agnostic and can offer visualisation of multiple data sources on one screen or dashboard.

Imagine a plane where data was passed to a pilot in pages of printed paper. The plane would be badly parked in the side of a mountain long before the pilot understood where he was and how much fuel he had on board. Of course the dashboard in a plane has a number of systems to report on local weather and traffic to fuel and mechanical status as well as maps and navigational inputs. This is all very graphically displayed on screens and gauges to ensure the safety of flight. In business we struggle to get the same level of real-time reporting as much of the data is buried in complex databases and reports

The exciting news in this space is that systems that not so long ago cost many tens of thousands of dollars to gain access to are becoming available in cloud and subscriber-based models with very low cost of entry and monthly fees removing the once high barrier to entry. It is now feasible for an individual consultant to own the software and produce visual output for a range of clients. This is creating new opportunities for smart, innovative small businesses to provide high value services to larger organisations, with large amounts of data to assess without the need for a large upfront sale of dashboard software.

This is just the sort of innovation opportunity I wrote about two weeks ago that will create big opportunities for innovative and nimble small businesses. If you think you can benefit from this new opportunity, let me know.

David Markus is the founder of Combo – the IT services company that is known for solving business problems with IT. How can we help?

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