Sunday, January 14, 2007

Tableau Software

Business intelligence is about taking business data and turning it into actionable information, and there is a visualization problem at the heart of this process. Business data can be complicated and the user needs help in presenting the information in the best possible way. Unfortunately, many leading Business Intelligence tools seem to be deliberately designed to lead the user into making the worst possible presentation choices.

At previous meetings of the SDForum Business Intelligence SIG we have had great fun looking bad visualizations such as garishly colored 3-D pie charts and 3-D bar graphs that do more to obscure the information than to show it off. At the November meeting of the SIG we heard from a company that is doing something positive about data visualization when Kelly Wright, Director of Sales for Tableau Software, and a Bay area local, presented "Visual Analysis Using Tableau Software".

Tableau Software ( is a startup that emerged from a research project at Stanford University. There under the leadership of Dr. Pat Hanrahan a team of researchers worked on the difficult problem of enabling people to easily see and understand the information in their databases. As Kelly explained Tableau was formed in 2000 and took 5 years to develop their product, coming out with their first version in 2005. They are now on version 2.1.

Kelly gave us a whirlwind tour of Tableau's capabilities. Firstly Tableau is designed to understand the data that it is presenting, at least to the extent that it can make sensible choices about how to present the data in a useful way, for example, by giving line graphs of continuous data against time. While it is always possible to override the default, Tableau seems to do a good job with its choices. The next issue is being able to present large amounts of data and compare different aspects of the data against one another, and again the Tableau drag and drop interface seems intuitive and easy to use. When you can see all the data the next requirement is to drill down into the interesting data and remove the noise, and again Tableau has a set of tools for selecting the most interesting data points and looking into them further.

In retrospect it seems obvious to take the knowledge that has developed around how to present information, and package it into a data visualization product. However this is not as simple as it seems and the fact that Tableau took 5 years to develop their product shows the amount of work involved in doing this properly. Also, theirs is a lonely path. The other BI vendors prefer to provide flash and features over carefully integrated substance.

TableauĂ‚’s product is not expensive for a data-head, and if you ask, you can get a 10 day free trial to find out exactly what it can do. Go ahead and try it!

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