Guest Blog Feature | Uncovering the concept of data visualization

This guest post was contributed by the NICSA Technology and Innovation committee.

DataVisualizationHave you been spending time organizing wordclouds, treemaps and balloon races?  If you have, then you probably know more than the average person about Data Visualization.  While the concept is not particularly new, it is one of those phrases that hovers around office conversations, never quite coming into focus.  Definitions are not hard to find.  This one offered by TechTarget is concise: “Data visualization is a general term used to describe any technology that lets corporate executives and other end users ‘see’ data in order to help them better understand the information and put it in a business context.  Firms are learning that new data visualization techniques are often a better way to communicate messages.

Definitions seldom provide a full picture of any topic and that’s especially true of something involving visualization.  To get a better idea of why data visualization is more than just a fancy term for how to present information, there are a number of resources to turn to.  One is this TED talk by Hans Rosling. It has been around awhile, but there is a reason it has almost 9 million views.  A highly entertaining example of the power of good data visualization (using a balloon race) can be seen about three and a half minutes in.  Another resource is datavisualization.ch, a website that bills itself as “the premier news and knowledge resource for data visualization and infographics” maintained by Benjamin Wiederkehr of Interactive Things who can be followed on Twitter as @datavis.  Flowingdata.com is another site specializing in data visualization insights and ideas.  A recent post there gives a good example of effective data visualization. Nathan Yau, the UCLA statistics Ph. D. behind Flowingdata has written a book on the topic.  Here is a review.  

Regardless of the source, it is clear that data visualization has come a long way from simple statistical graphics depicting length and area to more robust designs showing more complex and larger data sets with real variability.  Edward Tufte, a Professor Emeritus at Yale University teaching statistical evidence and information design, has spent his life explaining why “good design matters”.  Often referred to as “the Leonardo da Vinci of Data” he imparts the value of visual display of data and evidence.   He now teaches others how to use evidence to make decisions.  This paradigm is particularly helpful in the field of financial services as executives are learning that, in addition to the use of data graphics to display information, how it’s displayed can often lead to more informed decisions.  Moreover, as we move forward into the realm of big data and organizing structured/unstructured data, this notion of data visualization can become even more pertinent.  For an investment industry-specific example, take a look at this dynamic illustration of U.S. demographic trends, which was developed by Theresa Hamacher at NICSA for her presentation at the recent ALFI Global Distribution Conference in Luxembourg.

Data Visualization shows up in Financial Services firms in a number of ways.  Frequently it is a factor in choosing Business Intelligence tools.  Traditionally, metrics were presented in the form of charts and graphs for a reader to digest.  Now, using data visualization tools, financial services firms can display data faster in a dashboard format, often offering users the ability to create customizable views.  Additionally, self-service options can pull more data ad-hoc from a data warehouse, allowing firms to meet the needs of a wider audience base in real-time fashion.  TechTarget has a good overview on how to evaluate these tools and earlier this year Gartner published a Magic Quadrant report on Business Intelligence and Analytics Platforms.  

The NICSA Technology Committee is always interested in hearing from member firms who think they have something of value to share.  If your firm is making good use of Data Visualization and you would like to share your experiences with other NICSA members we would very much like to hear from you.



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