See data clearly with visualization tools

The Lowdown

What is it? Data visualization tools can plumb the depths of databases and put hard-to-read data tables and unstructured text into graphical, easily understood form.

How do they work? Many tools are contained in business intelligence suites in what are called executive dashboards. Others are extensions of familiar GIS systems. And still others work as front ends with other vendors' database and business intelligence applications.

What about server and client platforms? Many of these products work with a variety of operating systems and, on the client side, with a Web browser, or ActiveX or Java plug-in.

Must-know info? Increasing use of XML and Web services is creating new uses for data visualization tools, as agencies look to get more information from their databases to their Web sites.

The explosion in government data has created a boom for software that can analyze information and present it in charts, graphs and other images that people can quickly grasp.

Data visualization programs have moved beyond scientific and engineering graphics workstations to appeal to managers, Web buyers and anyone else with a need or desire to extract more value from dense, hard-to-read tables and unstructured text.

The tools often come in what are called executive dashboards, which collect and present graphical reports of data gleaned from several sources.

Notable vendors include Business Objects Americas Inc., Cognos Inc. and MicroStrategy Inc. Market researcher International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., said the business intelligence market reached $3.7 billion last year and could hit $4.5 billion by 2007.

Geographic information systems vendors also increasingly promote new uses for their data-aware maps. And others are tackling a related but critically different challenge: creating navigable maps of large databases. Typically, they deal with Web sites, but can be any large data store and their structures and descriptions, called metadata.

Grokker from Grixis Inc. and Visual Net from Antarctica Systems Inc. are two prominent examples of these new, comparatively lightweight data-visualization tools that double as navigation aids. But many other data visualization vendors also claim their products serve these dual roles.

Visualization tools could be in even greater demand as organizations expose more data and applications over the Web. That could mean another quantum leap in data, which will make more
Web services tools not only possible, but necessary.

David Essex is a free-lance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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