The traditional means of displaying data using graphs is becoming more and more incongruous to the possibilities offered by new web 2.0 concepts and services. The ability to bring data to life and free it from static representations, is an increasing trend exemplified by the popularity of mashups and visualization services.
(picture courtesy xkcd)
Everyone is aware of how useful graphs can be in visualizing large amounts of data. Excel is perhaps it easiest and most popular application within enterprises to create charts and visual representations of data. However, the use of these static charting tools to display data reaches a tipping point. Once this stage is reached the law of diminishing returns sets in and looking at more and more graphs begins to lose its appeal and effectivness. After, the third or fourth pie chart in a dashboard or executive summary, people start to lose interest. Also, it’s often the case that charts contain too much information and the associated legends are not particular clear as to what is being represented. In SAP BI this is often the case when the graphical feature is used to display large amounts data within a report.
The popularity of APIs such as Google-Maps (the top API for mashups) are due to their ability to represent data in new and exciting ways. Representing data layered on a map provides extra context and frees it from traditional representation mediums. The contrast between overlapping data on a map and merely representing this in a barchart is immense, and can lead to more meaningful analysis and understanding.
The story of Wal-Mart stores
The visualization below tells the story of the growth and expansion of Wal-Mart across America over the past 50 years. The focal point of the presentation is the graphical representation of the data across time. While this data could have been plotted in a bar-chart/line-chart -with time along the x-axis and number of stores along the y-axis – this medium would not tell such a compelling story. The data suits a visual medium, and the map enhances story of the early days of the company i.e. with its origins in Bentonville, Arkansas. The focus on local expansion in its early history is clearly represented, along with its spread in the southeast and then towards the west coast. The sheer speed of expansion is clearly illustrated, and is something that could be glossed over were it represented in a static chart.
For me, the beauty and power of the visualization is outlined by John W Tukey below:
“The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see” John W Tukey. Exploratory Data Analysis. 1977 (taken from Flowingdata).
(visualization courtesy Flowingdata)
The representation above relies on two important criteria –
1) That the raw data is freely available in an accessible format – This was provided in .csv format at http://www.econ.umn.edu/~holmes/data/WalMart/index.html
2) That this raw data can be overlapped onto a map, with the geographical location of each store plotted based on time. This was provided using Modestmaps.
While there is nothing particularly ground breaking about such a mashup, the trend outlined by Google-Maps, OpenStreetMap and others poses a challenge to the presentation of data within enterprises, especially where there is a geographic component.
Tools such as Visual Composer can already Visual Composer demo – Customer and Google APIAPIs such as that from Google Maps to plot data. However, such services also require a time dimension to creative a cohesive and structured narrative. The Wal-Mart visualization is dependent on time to tell the story of the growth of the chain. The flash technology available within Visual Composer allows for graphs to ‘dance’ when they are manipulated, creating an aesthetically pleasing effect . More of this kind of functionality – including a timeline dimension – is needed in order to create these kind of visualizations within the SAP ecosphere.
Visualizations utilising SAP data
As SAP and Business Intelligence systems collect more and more data, exciting and visually appealing ways of presenting this is required. The visual manifestation of this data needs to create a story and tell a narrative in order to be effective. Visualizations are judged on their data, aesthetics and how well they inform the viewer. If the ability to create interesting mashups are left to tools outside the enterprise e.g. Datadepot, Manyeyes, Swivel etc, then there will be more requests for data downloads in csv and xml format from SAP systems. Business users will then take this data and use it with 3rd party services to create the visualizations they require. While this may be a cost effective way to produce interesting presentations, it does introduce security concerns if corporate data is sent outside the firewall to 3rd party applications. Therefore, SAP needs to provide easly means to:
a) allow data to be easily downloaded from SAP systems – including BI in open formats e.g. csv and xml, so it can be used in other 3rd party applications (already possible in BI, ECC and Xcelsius but sometimes extraction is not easy for large amounts of data)
b) enable interesting visualizations of data using third-party maps etc. within SAP e.g. using BI data to create Xcelsius presentations using different APIs and potentially public/benchmark datasets.
The SAP ecosphere needs to provide businesses with the abilit to create the kinds of visualisations embedded below. Also, it needs to learn from the IBM tools available at Manyeyes which allow for powerful presentations to be created using a simple and easy interface.
(video taken from Youtube)
(video taken from Youtube)
* Wordle – Creates beautiful word clouds
* Datadepot – Used to upload, share and analyse data and trends
* Manyeyes – Create fantastic and elaborate visualizations
* Swivel – Create, share and mashup data sets
* Maptube – Tool for viewing, sharing, mixing and mashing maps online.
* Industry Sector Campaign Contributions – uses Google Spreadsheet to highlight contributions over time
* Capitol Words – creates word clouds based on word frequency
* 5 Best Data Visualization Projects of the year – Visualizations of the year
* OpenStreetMap edits – Visualization of edits on OpenStreetMap
* Google-Maps – Top 100+ Best Tools and Mashups utilising Google-Maps
* StatPlanet – Demographic, educational, health and other data from various agencies mapped