I attended an interesting seminar on Business Intelligence recently. I am reporting primarily because Howard Spielman, the keynote, did an excellent job of describing BI and data visualization. If you at all are interested in business intelligence or data visualization, take the opportunity to see Spielman talk. The other speakers were primarily demonstrating the principles Spielman discussed, and showing off what the seminar sponsors could do.
Business Intelligence is about being able to interact with data in multiple dimensions. This assumes you have the data, of course, which frequently means the data warehouse or the ERP system is able to provide the data in some fashion. BI is not about drawing pretty graphs or adding 3-D effects to your pie charts. Spielman and the other presenters showed the value of interaction with data: the newer BI tools let you highlight and focus on data with incredible ease and immediacy. In the right hands, these tools help people ask questions that would have been too difficult to process in the past.
As for the history of BI and data visualization, Spielman took us back to the 18th Century England and the publication of two books loaded with graphically displayed numerical information. The charts are beautiful things, showing three and four dimensions in great clarity. Then he showed us typical reports from today's business environment, arguing that these reports show no more information - and frequently less - than the charts created over 200 years ago. For example, rotated, proportional, 3-D pie charts actually obscure information even though they attempt to display multiple dimensions on the page.
His claim is that while it is much easier to create charts and graphs with the tools we have today, it is not easy to create meaningful and understandable displays of information. You have to put thought behind what you are doing, which is what Spielman and people like Edward Tufte are arguing. Spielman also argues that companies develop graphicacy standards, and that our schools begin teaching graphicacy along with literacy and numeracy.