Business-like, isn't he?



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    Software makes data more accessible to decision-makers

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver March 30-April 5, 2004 Issue 753; High Tech Office

    Last issue, this column looked at Filemaker Pro and Quickbase, two database programs aiming at helping small businesses, workgroups and individuals manage their own data. Large organizations have different needs, however. Most often they already have corporate-scale databases; data is saved, backed up and organized. Now, however, the problem is for mere humans to be able to sift through these huge piles of data to discover the patterns that transform raw data into knowledge useful for making decisions.

    Vancouver's Crystal Decisions, now part of Business Objects, has long been an expert in this field, with its highly-regarded Crystal Reports offering clients tools to query large databases and report on the results.

    Tim Bray, founder of Vancouver-based Antarctica Systems (, suggests that business people are surrounded by vast amounts of information. Bray, well known as a co-developer of the XML computer language, believes that people find what they need more effectively if it is presented visually rather than as text.

    "The business problems that people address on a daily basis are complex and multidimensional," Bray says. "Sometimes key problems and opportunities are missed, even though all of the required information exists."

    Antarctica has developed a product that it believes makes it significantly easier for users to identify significant trends and patterns, by visualizing data. Initially developed for libraries, Antarctica's Visual Net is now aimed at business decision-makers, freeing them up from reliance on IT managers and analysts who specialized in using more traditional business intelligence tools. By reducing large amounts of data into visually-oriented "maps" organizing user-identified variables by colour, shape and size, it becomes possible at a glance, even with minimal training, to identify problems, or profits, in the making. Areas requiring attention typically show up on the maps with the largest area or the brightest colour.

    Visual Net succeeds in maximizing the amount of numerical, textual and geographic data displayed on a screen. By combining shape, colour and size in its maps, multiple data dimensions can be presented at once. Areas requiring attention "rise to the top." A user, clicking on these areas, can quickly drill down through increasingly detailed screens, again all presented visually, to locate the causes for problems. A user might quickly move from a screen showing the company's 10 most profitable products to one showing the 10 least profitable, and see what products were selling, or failing to sell, in what geographic regions. Users spend less time digging for information and more time making use of it.

    Visual Net works off a copy of a corporate dataset loaded directly into computer memory; this allows it to provide information quickly, in real time, based on up-to-date data, and to let users access its screens online using any Web browser on any computer platform. Typically, clients host it within their own network.

    Canadian building-materials manufacturer and distributor Emco has licensed Visual Net to help analyze the company's profit margins, and will be setting up the software for use by some 1,700 users working in procurement, finance, logistics and customer support. CISglobal is integrating Visual Net into its procurement and asset management package, IMAPxp, where it will be used to help reduce project cost overruns and verify financial management data.

    Visual Net is a tool that needs to be customized to each organization's unique requirements; Antarctica claims, however, that it can be deployed in a matter of weeks, letting each client quickly begin to make use of its powerful features. 

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan