For Small Firm, Dashboards Meet Big Analytics Needs

At a small market research firm, dashboard software that can work in real time and with flat files is proving highly useful.

For small companies with demanding data analysis needs, it can be challenging to find powerful tools that don’t require many IT specialists to set up and maintain them. Analytic InSight, a small market research firm in Maine that specializes in evaluating government programs as they are implemented, needed software to allow detailed visual drill-downs into reams of state-supplied data, all done by users with little or no training in data analysis.

Analytic InSight works with both private and public agencies, building measurement tools and helping clients understand the social and cultural contexts of state and federal programs and participants. Users tend to be social service workers who know the sorts of insights they want from the data but lack technical backgrounds.

The need for a tool that can handle sophisticated analysis but is easy for business users is increasingly common in the world of business intelligence, as companies realize the business value hidden in vast amounts of collected data. At Analytic InSight, president Amy Flowers was familiar with big analytic software packages such as SAS and SPSS but needed software that could produce user dashboards and visual displays for clients.

With a Ph.D. in sociology, Flowers has done plenty of quantitative analysis and had a strong sense of what sort of software solution she wanted -- but didn’t know where to find it. Analytic InSight turned to Visual Mining, a company whose NetCharts Performance Dashboards software targets two groups: application developers who need to build graphical Web-based applications for data visualization, and the business users who need that data in a usable, easily digestible format. NetCharts for Business Users provides interactive dashboards for analytics by less-technical users. NetCharts for Developers offers tools for developments and deployment of data visualization solutions that can be integrated with backend applications and data sources.

For Flowers, the Visual Mining software for non-technical users, NetCharts for Business Users, proved to be right for her firm’s clients. Without help from IT staff, the tool lets an ordinary business user try out a variety of visual interpretations of data. The dashboards Flowers’ company creates uses NetCharts to display high-level data and includes drop-down menus that allow the user to delve further into the data.

Another potential stumbling block at Analytic InSight was data structure. Social science data tends to reside in large flat files rather than the relational databases common in business. When Flowers started looking at dashboard providers, the products she considered tended to assume relational data. The resulting dashboards looked good, but Flowers’ backend data simply didn’t resemble the vendors’ sources.

Visual Mining fit the bill because it handles flat files easily. NetCharts can connect with a range of back-end data sources, including Oracle, IBM, SQL, and Sybase, as well as Microsoft Access and Excel. Because it uses an ODBC connector, dashboard data can be refreshed live.

On a recent project, Flowers needed to analyze data on a range of agencies implementing the same program -- including providing an overview of the various agencies and how they were using the program. She wanted to give staff at the various agencies different ways of viewing the provided data. For example, a user might want to compare at the program’s implementation in rural versus urban settings, then sort by age and disability, then compare ethnicity or gender -- or virtually any other combination of “what ifs” from the social science data supplied.

Such relatively complex comparisons needed to be easy for users -- generally program directors at social service agencies -- to understand and perform. For the project, “we [were looking] at a huge number of variables, say 200,” Flowers said. With the traditional method of printed reports, she pointed out, users might be given paper reports a foot thick in order to include that much information. Instead, Flowers wanted “a really easy, user-friendly way of presenting the data and allowing them to follow their own a train of thought … very much as I would as an analyst using SPSS or SAS.”

With no training except a conference call walk-through, users now take advantage of the Visual Mining dashboards her company has created, Flowers said. “It has given them a considerable amount of power.” Another plus: Users can export charts from NetCharts into Excel or another product and use them in their own reporting and presentations.

Visual Mining is especially useful in providing what it calls “comparative analytics” -- data comparisons that are common in business, such as comparing performance between two quarters. Flowers’ dashboards offer users such comparative analytics – for example, allowing them to compare how one facility did compared to all other facilities, then add a specific type of client to the comparison, then target one social problem, and specify a time frame.

In the future, Flowers envisions moving beyond providing social science data to agency program directors, and making the sort of data she works with easily available to the public via a Web interface. Users searching for a nursing home in a specific area would be able to create visual comparisons based on their own criteria -- homes nearby that accept pets and are highly rated by other consumers, for example.

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