PowerPoint presentations get a 4F in the Army as Tableau gains a foothold

Data visualization is being used to help the military move equipment out of Afghanistan

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- As it winds down the decade-long war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military is moving some 750,000 major pieces of equipment, such a weapons and vehicles, out of that country. The logistic challenge is enormous, and to help complete it the U.S. Army will be using a new business intelligence tool.

The Army is deploying Tableau Software to help it visualize and manage its supply chain. The tool is gradually replacing the old standby, PowerPoint, to present data to everyone from generals on down through the ranks.

To be clear, PowerPoint presentations are still in use, and will likely remain as much an Army staple as chip beef on toast, a dish served since World War II. But once officers begin working with interactive data in Tableau's visualization tools, it's hard for them to go back.

The Tableau tool is "transformational - people want to see what's happening and not be told," said Chuck Driessnack, a contractor for SAIC who has been heading the development project. The interactive tool allows staff and military to see military data on the fly, which is much better than being given "an interpretation of what's happening."

"It's a completely different way of doing business," said Driessnack.

Driessnack was at the Tableau's conference here, attended by about 4,000 people, including about 700 company employees.

Tableau, in just over 10 years, has built a customer base of more than 13,500 users. Its rapid rise tells the story of the investment the public and private sector is making in BI tools generally, and in visualization tools specifically.

Driessnack said the visualization tool draws data from various Army ERP systems and data warehouses, allowing users to view it in different ways and consider new approaches. That's in contrast to PowerPoint presentations, which drive users to think in certain ways, he said.

The real challenge for users will be posing the questions that can take the data in directions that yields new insights.

Redbox, which runs self-service kiosks for DVDs and video-game rentals at more than 42,000 locations in the U.S., also uses the Tableau tool, in part to determine ideal locations for new kiosks. Matt James, the senior director of strategy and analytics for Redbox, said the company uses a "hypothesis driven" approach to try to arrive at a new use for the data. Once a hypothesis is formed, the approach is then "what are the ways that you can prove or disprove that."

The hypotheses are developed through "a lot of brainstorming," said James, adding that "more often than not, the starting hypothesis is wrong."

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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