The Power of Visualisation

Published on The Times of Malta 3rd April 2014.

It is the 19th October, 1812 and Napoleon’s Grande Armée is slowly retreating from the cold Moscow Winter; the prospect of sheer starvation, as well as the incessant and vicious raids from increasingly hostile Russian Cossacks, contribute towards the disastrous outcome to this ill-fated military campaign.

Late in November of that year, the decimated French army reached the Berezina River and found the Russian army blocking any attempt to cross this highly treacherous river. Over the next three days, the greater part of the army managed to cross from one side the other, but eventually Napoleon was forced to order the burning of the provisional bridges; leading to the stranding of more than ten thousand French troops. By the time the remnants of this army reach France, more than four-hundred thousand men would have lost their lives.

The sheer scale of this defeat is relatively difficult to comprehend and most history books manage only to convey bland statistics; failing to depict the absolute and utter misery of the humble soldier. It was the work of a Frenchman, Charles Joseph Minard, who more than anyone else managed to underscore the axiom that a picture is worth a hundred words.

Minard stands out as a pioneer in the use of graphical visualisation; his celebrated Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813, published in 1869, uses a two-dimensional medium to depict various factors related to Napoleon’s campaign across the vast Russian landscape. The flow-map manages to simultaneously display:

  • the ever-shrinking size of the French army including the sharp drop at the crossing of the Berezina River;
  • the location, through latitude and longitude, of the army, both during the march and the eventual retreat;
  • the direction travelled, in advance and retreat, by the main army as well as that for the various supporting divisions;
  • the geographical location of the army on various important dates; and
  • the weather conditions, including temperatures, during the retreat.

The fundamental role of a Business Intelligence (BI) computer system is to trawl through large volumes of business data in order to provide timely and effective information analytics with which to recognise potential and lucrative opportunities earlier than the competition or to address emerging business issues before these become critical.

Traditionally BI tools were designed to retrieve, collate and present information in order to present any ‘intelligence’ through paper-based, one-dimensional, reports. Often, such reports present a retrospective business outlook that addresses a singular question, often disconnected from various other operational and strategic business factors. Moreover, development of such reports requires varying degrees of time and effort and may not always be delivered as soon as required. In contrast, this sometimes drawn-out development process takes place against the rapid speed and ever-changing environment within which modern businesses operate.

To a large degree this contrasting situation is akin to reading a book about Napoleon’s historic Russian campaign in which each separate chapter focuses exclusively on one, and just one, distinct aspect of the overall chronicle. It is left to the reader to discern the historic connections between one campaign event and any other, before or after. Failure to establish these connections may provoke more questions than answers within the reader.

In contrast, Minard’s graphical presentation, overcomes the restricted focus upon individual events through the use of effective graphical visualisation of the entire campaign, in order to provide a unique and valuable outlook upon the significant bigger picture. It successfully presents events and information in a manner that the viewer’s eyes can discern better and conceptually grasp significance faster than would have been the case otherwise.

Similarly, businesses need to look beyond traditional one-dimensional reports and seek to develop highly-configurable and functional visual analytic tools that present a colourful graphical display of business information to render a higher degree of intelligence to data (often referred to as ‘data analysis’) as well as facilitate communication of dynamic business information, across a broad range of users, preferably in a real-time fashion.


Such ‘self-service’ data visualisation tools can assist tactical, operational and strategic decision-makers to picture and envision information in order to recognise emerging business and operational trends, across a multi-dimensional business view, in a faster manner than can ever be possible using traditional reports.

Visualisation can also enable decision-makers to pose ever-changing and increasingly complex business problems, without the need for the Information Technology (IT) department to be burdened with the necessity to develop or generate yet more and more reports – a number of which may even be obsolete by the time they are delivered.

Data visualisation is a far-reaching game-changer; whereas conventional reports tend to describe what has happened within the business, well-designed visualisation can additionally provide an insight into why something may have happened. The business implications are extensive and collectively these can transform the very concept of business data presentation.

A May 2013 survey by the Aberdeen Group described visualisation of business data as “… fundamental, providing a real opportunity to gain competitive advantage. When [visualisation is] used as part of a BI portfolio, almost one-third more business decisions can be based on facts, not gut feel.’

The Aberdeen survey reported that ‘organisations using visual discovery tools are 28% more likely to find timely information than their peers who solely use managed reporting’ adding that ‘[visualisation] enables business managers to find answers to unexpected questions that arise through the day-to-day turmoil that is business-as-usual for most companies.’

Data visualisation is the vital first step towards rapidly understanding, in an intuitive, clear, accurate, and efficient manner, what is happening within a business organisation, and in the process allow a spectrum of users to gain an understanding of composite information at varying levels of detail. Is it a science or an art? The answer lies in how well we understand a business and the people within.

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