November 12, 2019
Turning Data into Actionable Information
By: Chaz Mateer
By: Andrew Rosa
By: Chris Gerecke
Everywhere you look it seems like someone is standing up a data collection project. In today’s technological landscape, spinning up a data collection project doesn’t require your IT department. We are now able to create a data schema, provision an app to collect the data of interest, and launch that app for data collection in hours instead of weeks or months. Data collection in the office and the field continues to become easier, timelier, and more streamlined through the advance of mobile data collection technology including platforms like Collector for ArcGIS, Survey 123 for ArcGIS, Fulcrum, JotForm, and Zoho Forms.
As barriers to setting up a data collection project are being removed, the data that is being collected has gained variety, volume and veracity in its character. This has resulted in a growing need for Data Visualization and Business Intelligence (BI) tools to aggregate, synthesize, and turn “data into actionable information”.
Our data insights and science team at Timmons Group specializes in helping organizations turn their data into actionable information and visualize key insights that they want to tease out of the vast amounts of data being collected. Our team works directly with our clients to determine the best solutions for their unique challenges, and we have outlined some of our discussions below that guide our process.
To get us started: we are often asked what are the key components of a good visualization platform or tool? The following are components that individuals and organizations should consider when evaluating visualization or BI tools:
- Sharing – role based sharing of visualization content internally and to the public
- Authoring – help users rapidly develop and customize the look-and-feel of visualizations with minimal to no coding needed
- Integration – out of the box data connectors to assist with integration between data sources
- Refresh – ability to automate the extract, transform, and load (ETL) of data to create compelling updatable visualizations
- Extensibility – APIs and SDK’s for developers to extend and customize the user experience of a visualization(s)
- Self-Service – easy to use tools to allow business users to create their own visualizations
- Spatial – ability to incorporate geospatial context in our visualizations
"One Size Does Not Fit All! – Let's Look at Some Examples."
Our team uses several different visualization and business intelligence tools. We excel at identifying the right tool for the project by looking at several factors including, but not limited to:
- The client’s investment
- Scalability (enterprise vs. a specific project)
- Audience for the visualizations (public, internal, technical, operational)
- Maturity of an organization’s data governance and warehousing
Tableau is widely used and has a number of diverse data visualization and data exploration tools. It is one of the more popular offerings in the BI landscape because of its user-friendly interface and full suite of desktop authoring, web presentation, and ETL tools. It comes with some very powerful tools for data visualization out of the box. It also has some out of the box analytics tools with the option to perform more advanced analysis with the use of popular open source data analytics libraries in Python and R. With Tableau you can publish content to the web to be shared with others either in Tableau’s platform or embedded in an application. Licensing for Tableau is handled on a per user basis and there are multiple tiers of licensing based on the intended use (viewing vs. authoring). The software can easily be installed on a desktop computer and the server component can be hosted on premises, in the cloud, or with no hosting using Tableau’s SaaS platform. Timmons Group has significant Tableau design, development, consulting, and administration experience and can help organizations to maximize the return on their Tableau investment.
Microsoft Power BI
Power BI is similar to Tableau in that it has a number of very powerful tools out of the box and has both desktop and server components. Power BI does not seem to have as many visualization customizations out of the box, though there are many freely available community plugins. Power BI has a familiar look and feel for developers familiar with Microsoft products. The licensing for Power BI is comparable to Tableau for individual users, and they have an attractive licensing program for independent software vendors (ISV) which easily allows users to embed content into existing applications. Power BI also has better support for spatial data types, whereby it can directly ingest (without custom coding) feature services from ArcGIS Server as well as map services (which is the only out of the box GIS web service Tableau is able to handle). Power BI has a similar deployment type to Tableau where the server component can be hosted on-prem, in the cloud, or utilized on Microsoft’s SaaS platform. Timmons Group has developed dynamic dashboards and visualizations using Power BI to highlight key data insights that are directly embedded within our solutions (example below).
Operations Dashboard for ArcGIS and Insights for ArcGIS
Operations Dashboard for ArcGIS and Insights for ArcGIS are part of the ArcGIS Online / Enterprise suite of premiere apps. It requires a user to have an ArcGIS Online license but provides unparalleled out of the box support for spatial data types. What it lacks in data connectors (compared with Tableau and Power BI) it makes up for in ease of use and ability to integrate with several spatial data formats that the other platforms cannot. Operations Dashboard is more for data presentation while Insights leverages some of Power BI’s more analytical and exploratory functionality. Both apps are available on ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Enterprise. Our team at Timmons Group has configured and extended many similar solutions using these apps and can help consult on how to get started building geospatially powered visualizations quickly.
"What Does this Mean for Me, as the Client?"
There are a lot of considerations as we pivot from a focus on data collection towards turning data into actionable information. Visualizing data and “telling stories with information” is becoming increasingly important to effectively show progress towards goals, increase transparency, and make better operational decisions. As we have seen in this article there are several visualization and business intelligence tools designed to meet a variety of use cases. Whether you are designing or developing for a specific project, your department, or with a focus, on the enterprise it’s definitely not a “one-size fits all” approach. Timmons Group is here to help in any step towards or during your data visualization journey.