June 1, 2018

BI vendors aim to ease visual data analysis by business users

By 
Craig Stedman
Despite the self-service BI push, enabling end users to take the lead on analyzing and visualizing data is often still a challenge -- one that vendors continue to address.

As analytics teams look to make it easier for business users to analyze and visualize data on their own, more BI vendors are adding visual data analysis capabilities designed to meet those needs -- and new software releases from GoodData and Periscope Data provide fresh evidence.

GoodData last week launched a UI design framework called Spectrum for use with its embedded BI and analytics platform. The additions include a JavaScript library that BI developers can use to build custom applications with built-in data visualizations, plus functionality for creating alert-driven dashboards and enabling end users to visually explore data sets prepared for them by data analysts.

A week earlier, Periscope Data also rolled out new features that let business users analyze curated data sets in its data modeling and analytics platform. Instead of looking at static charts and dashboards, users can now tap a visual query editor with a drag-and-drop interface to create their own data visualizations without having to do any SQL coding.

Visual data analysis has been a trending topic for years, with self-service BI tools like Tableau, Qlik Sense and Microsoft's Power BI setting the pace. Gartner again listed interactive visual exploration as one of the core capabilities of modern BI and analytics platforms in its 2018 Magic Quadrant report on them, published in February. However, making the use of BI software in business operations more pervasive -- and more user-driven -- remains a challenge in many organizations.

Room to grow on visual data exploration

For example, Fivestars, which runs a customer loyalty program for local businesses, has 10 Tableau users -- but they're data analysts who do "heavy-lifting analytics" with the software, said Matt Curl, the San Francisco company's vice president of business operations. Periscope Data's platform offered less of a learning curve for business users as a data visualization and dashboard tool, Curl said. On the other hand, end-user data exploration in it has largely been limited to people with SQL skills, he added.

Matt Curl, Fivestars
Matt Curl, Fivestars

Curl, who manages data infrastructure and analytics at Fivestars, said he sees "a lot of upside potential" for using Periscope's new capabilities to expand visual data discovery and analysis by end users. As a trial, he built a table that holds data on the use of the Fivestars program by ZIP code; business managers can drag and drop the different data elements they want to examine into a chart template.

That gives the end users more control over the analytics process than they get in a set of dashboards Curl's team built to track key business metrics and company initiatives. "It lets them look at what they want to look at when they want to look at it," without having to call the data analysts for help or deal with "a wall of text in SQL," he said.

Fivestars runs the Periscope Data platform on top of a repository from Treasure Data that pulls together data from 20 or so source systems for analysis. Curl is still assessing the new visual data analysis technology, but he expects to use it in real applications at the company, which is formally known as Five Stars Loyalty Inc. "The early signals are that people like it," he said.

Periscope Data CEO Harry Glaser said the new features are meant to give business users "a sort of mini-Tableau" to explore data sets curated for them by data management and analytics teams. From a competitive standpoint, he added, they're aimed at putting the San Francisco-based vendor on an equal footing for end-user analysis and visualization with Looker Data Sciences, its closest rival.

Screenshot of Periscope Data's visual data discovery tool
‍Business users can now drag and drop elements to create charts and other visualizations in Periscope Data's analytics platform.

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