Rich Internet Applications: New Data Visualization Tools for BI

The revolution in visualization is coming – will you be ready?

If you measure your Business Intelligence success by the actual adoption of your reporting capabilities to enable better decisionmaking at all levels of the organization, you should pay close attention to new developments in the emerging data visualization disciplines. In this post, we’ll review a great example from the World Health Organization that leverages Rich Internet Application technology using the Macromedia front end.

But first, some background. I’ve developed BI / analytic applications since 1988, training hundreds of users from all types of corporate roles. Actually working with the users and their various cognitive styles can be very frustrating for us BI developers… I’ve learned the hard way that it is definitely not just a case of “if you build it, they will come”. I’ve learned to take extreme care in the design of what I call the “presentation layer” and, at the minimum, doing informal usability testing before rolling out the reports.

We often feel that we’ve built this beautiful resource, but are haunted by the thought that those bone-headed users just don’t get it and won’t use it properly – one imagines giving granny a Formula One racer…

It isn’t a question of literacy, but how human beings really interact with the application. Guess what? We won’t be changing human beings in any fundamental way. So why not study how they learn (human cognition), and use that knowledge to build better interfaces? This field of “Human Computer Interaction” is of great interest to software companies and researchers worldwide (to learn more about the field join ACM’s special interest group http://sigchi.org).

I’ve always felt that we should be intelligence evangelists in a sense – we are actively trying to pursuade employees that the tool is exciting and effective and necessary. When we think of business intelligence driving down through all the organizational levels in a role based format, we have to become more and more aware of not only the learning capabilities of a diverse user audience, but also how their cognitive processes can be most effectively leveraged visually.

So how does one bridge the gap between our massive, elegantly architected stores of intelligence data, and the way that people really think and behave? How do we get users on board with that whole “intelligent enterprise” thing?

WHO project: a New World Order in Data Visualization.
This project is an intriguing application presenting analytic data through an interactive vizualization technology. It raises the bar against prior methods, and makes an Excel / BEx worksheet look downright primitive. Remember when the old days when we used to use spreadsheets?

In this example, the interface has been written using Macromedia tools.

About Macromedia Flex. Macromedia Flex is based on a service-oriented architecture in which you use data services to interact with server-side data sources. You can work with data sources that are accessible using Java objects, Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP)-compliant web services, or Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) GET or POST requests. In a typical Flex application, client-side data service objects send requests to external data services, which return result data to the client-side objects.

So, though this World Health Organization example is static, Flex is capable of handling static table data content, as well as connecting to data sources using wdsl.

About the WHO project. The World Health Organization wanted to create a tool which would help the a world-wide audience explore relationships using comparative visualizations between countries. Users can select economic data, population, and health variables, and see how these “metrics” change over time.

For example in screen print below, we see reductions in illiteracy during the past 50 years against GDP for countries which the user has selected.

According to WHO, some of the many questions for which World Health Chart can contribute to the answer:

    Which are the richest countries in the world?
    Which are the healthiest countries in the world?
    How does wealth relate to health today and in the past?
    Has the world become healthier over the past 50-100 years?
    How has the differences in health between countries changed?
    How has each country developed over the past 50-100 years?

It is designed to be used the world community to:

    learn and teach about health development in the world
    illustrate projects, presentations, articles and campaigns
    advocacy and policy analysis
    generate ideas and hypotheses for research
    assessment of international health data

The link for this post gives you the download for the application – here’s a screenshot of the data I developed comparing the changes in literacy rates over time for selected countries. But, the application can’t be understood by screen shots – I encourage you to download it and “play” your own time series analysis… actually watching the graph transform as the years go by.

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