Tech hotshots: The rise of the dataviz expert

Big data doesn't work if decision-makers can't absorb what it means. Enter the data visualization expert to sort it all out.

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Good data visualization has proven to have real bottom-line business benefits at Cisco, says Lewandowski. He developed a graphic called "Lewandowski's pyramid," for example, which "has led to changes in global strategy." It's so strategically important, in fact, that he won't give much detail. "It's basically a segmentation, or stratification, model, where we count something, for example, number of orders or number of customers, and then segment it into different layers."

Over time, the model enables managers to track changes (in what, he wouldn't say) and identify the factors behind those changes to be better positioned to make a course correction or take advantage of an emerging market, for example. "We are depicting this in a way they've never seen before, a way that makes it very clear as to the types of questions internal stakeholders need to be asking," Lewandowski says.

Dana Zuber, an analytics manager in the enterprise data and analytics team at Wells Fargo, says she wasn't familiar with data visualization until she joined the bank six years ago, even though she had been analyzing data in a variety of jobs over the course of her 12-year career. The bank sent her through an internal training program on data visualization as well as to some outside seminars, including one by Tufte. "Before that, I didn't understand that there was a discipline around data visualization," she says.

The bank's executives obviously feel that data visualization has become a critical skill, and not just for data analysts. The internal course is available to anyone in the company, Zuber says. "As more people have taken the course, [interest in data visualization] has just spread throughout the organization," she says. "More people are seeing the value of it and understanding how it can help their job."

That's the kind of progress that Few would like to see more of. Although big data has focused attention on data visualization, it's a skill that's been sorely needed in corporations for a long time, he says. And even as companies start to recognize its importance, many of them are focusing on the wrong things. In job descriptions, for example, they are asking for technical skills, like how to do a chart in Cognos, rather than graphic design expertise.

"The kind of skills they are looking for aren't necessarily the skills they need," he says. Without an understanding of the subtler aspects, including how the human brain perceives color and shape, "you end up getting these really flashy data visualizations -- with all these colors and things spinning and flying and so forth," he explains. "It's just eye candy, and the story you're trying to tell with the data is lost behind the effects."

Frequent Computerworld contributor Tam Harbert is a Washington, D.C.-based writer specializing in technology, business and public policy.

This article, Tech hotshots: The rise of the dataviz expert, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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