Making sense out of big data through visualisation

With a proliferation of data emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, data visualisation offers a fantastic opportunity to present all this information in an easy-to-digest format, and its applications are broad.
Melissa Jantjies, Associate Systems Engineer at SAS South Africa
Melissa Jantjies, Associate Systems Engineer at SAS South Africa

In essence, data visualisation is a marriage between science and art. It’s the process of taking science, statistics and analytics and placing it in a visualisation that makes it easy for anyone to consume. Correctly done, it enables us to consume mass amounts of data and make decisions faster than if you were just looking at the flat and static data.

Data visualisation is not just about the pictures, it’s a very important and impactful way to assimilate information that allows a company, or even a government, to be reactive or proactive much faster. Visualising data turns it into a landscape you can explore with your eyes, and this can be a tremendously useful way to explore data. It tells a story that everyone in an organisation can understand and get behind.

The volume of data is overwhelming

There’s an overwhelming level of data and insights available today. In 2018, Newgenapps predicted that by 2020 1.7Mb of data would be generated per second for every person on the planet, and it’s likely that this has already been exceeded.

Facing the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic has presented, business is changing rapidly, and companies have had to rapidly adapt the way they work and do business. Every day, massive amounts of information and data are produced.

It’s safe to say that using data-driven insights to formulate actionable strategies has never been more important, but finding quick, intuitive, simpler ways to convey critical insights and concepts has assumed an equally important role. Digesting mass amounts of data is difficult, and the risk then is that in using only the most current data because the volume is very high – for example, using only the last month’s retail data – valuable insights are lost, and the insights generated become skewed or outdated.

Data visualisation comes in many forms

There are many ways to achieve data visualisation. Techniques including graphs, charts, treemaps, geo-mapping, map overlays, timelines and even word clouds can all be used to visually represent data outputs – all of which have been successfully used to plot and show the progression of the current Covid-19 outbreak.

The benefit of data visualisation is that it’s a much more digestible way to access information. It’s been proven by neuroscientists that people remember what they see at a far higher rate than what they hear or read. Presenting insights in charts or graphs to visualise significant amounts of complex data is more effective than relying on dense spreadsheets or lengthy reports.

Preparation is important

In order to fully utilise data visualisation, the data sets used must be clean. Data preparation is a must, or there is a risk that the visualisation will be faulty. Having the appropriate analytics tool is also vital. SAS Viya, for example, offers a specific application for visual analytics. It looks at data visualisation in the normal intelligence toolkit but has the added advantage of actual analytics built into the visual tool. It’s possible to complete tasks like path analysis and decision trees, it allows for geo-mapping and offers a number of different analytics applications on top of the visuals.

Self-service is here to stay

We’re moving into a space where analytics is becoming more platform-driven. Not everyone can be a data specialist who develops BI reports, but it’s increasingly important that companies can serve up relevant data in a digestible format according to their own time frames. The other benefit of SAS Viya is that it’s a self-service tool, offering data preparation tools with built-in capabilities that will tell you what types of transformations need to happen to the data.

From a data visualisation perspective, it can suggest presentation options based on the data available, for example presenting information on a map overlay to represent information geographically. This can help businesses identify gaps in their business and opportunities to fill those gaps – never more relevant than now, as many businesses pivot to focus on their online presence, with the associated challenges of logistics and delivery strategies.

Data visualisation is a trend that’s set to only increase in significance. Using data and analytics to tell a visual story utilising all your data allows companies to comprehend important trends very quickly and make the best possible decisions at the time.

Visit the SAS Coronavirus Report, powered by SAS Viya, where the company has created a dynamic data visualisation report using a combination of data sources available from the World Health Organisation, the Centers for Disease Control and others.

About Melissa Jantjies

Melissa Jantjies, Associate Systems Engineer at SAS South Africa

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