When was the last time you gave a presentation? In high school when you had to give a talk on the population-education-employment ratios of the various countries in the world and identify trends in it? Or yesterday afternoon in the boardroom when your bosses were sitting around a round table and you had to talk about the various expenditures in your department and then identify where you could cut down? Wherever it was, how did you present the data in your presentation? In plain vanilla tables with bold headers and lots of numbers right under it?
If even two of my grey cells are functioning right, my guess would be - no. You would have made extensive use of charts, gauges, and maps, what are collectively called as data visualization components, to give a face to your numbers. New data visualization methods keep evolving at a very rapid pace to serve various needs but their essence is the same - to help understand complex data with ease. They help in identifying & differentiating specific areas of interest, in summarizing data & focusing on related parameters for overall analysis.
Apart from high-school and boardroom presentations, data visualization is used in a multitude of other places too. Where exactly - do you ask? Let us take a look at some of its major applications:
1. Reporting Applications - Reporting Applications are everywhere. They report anything from system performance to quarterly sales. Data visualization is as important to reporting solutions as the back-end server would be. Right from plotting System Throughput in a System Performance Report to the Sales v Revenue figures in a Sales Report, charts and graphs help condense heaps of data into easy digestible information.
2. Network Monitoring Applications - Whenever we are talking networks, we are talking about a massive number of log files, typically in the high thousands. Managing that high a number of log files is well....tough. But using data visualization, a network guy can get the overall picture at once & know what's right and what's not. Network monitoring applications help in discovering, communicating & strategizing logs and make extensive use of data visualization for it. Imagine when your Network Administrator sends nothing but a bunch of log files to the management - they will be left clueless until they see it in the form of charts.
3. Executive Dashboards & Business Monitoring - The bigger an organization grows, the more they need to monitor it. This is done by seeing a snapshot of the performance of the organization, and the various departments therein which are what a dashboard is all about. This helps in identifying the negative trends and weeding them out and also identifying where growth has been achieved. Creating BI dashboards like calculating Return on Investment (ROI) or displaying various Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) is pretty much indispensable to most of the medium and large-sized organizations.
4. Surveys & Polls - "2-way communication" is the buzzword of the web. And surveys and polls are at the heart of it. Data visualization is used extensively for presenting statistics of market research & analysis of survey data, as it helps in getting an insight into the same quickly and coming out with solid conclusions.
5. Interactive Maps - Visualization of data in the form of interactive maps is important in specific websites & applications which involve location-based decision-making. "Sales by Region" and "Airline Routes" maps are pretty commonplace nowadays. One of the best applications of integrating data with interactive maps is "Geo-Targeted Advertising" or "Local Business Ads" on Google Maps. Google serves ads based upon latitude and longitude coordinates as specified by the advertiser.
6. Scientific Research - For scientific experiments, specialized graphs are needed to be used for analysis & interpretation of scientific data. It is mostly used in architectural, meteorological, medical, biological systems for visualization of three-dimensional phenomena. In meteorological and medical systems, the graphs often need to be able to stream data continuously from a server, to keep them "up-to-second".
7. PowerPoint Presentations - PowerPoint Presentations essentially need to look good, but not with data being presented in boring tables. That's where 3D and other fancy data visualization comes in. Balancing aesthetics with functionality is a very critical part of using data visualizations in presentations.
8. Generic Uses - General charts like bar, pie & line are used by pretty much anyone and everyone. While teenagers might use them to plot their weight loss chart, executives may use it to Annual Sales Chart for boardroom discussions.