makes data more accessible to decision-makers
by Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First
published in Business
30-April 5, 2004 Issue 753; High Tech Office
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
Tim Bray, founder of Vancouver-based Antarctica Systems (http://antarctica.net
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
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.