The new face of data visualization: the iPad
By Erica Ogg
The way we use, access and explore data in business is being actively disrupted by a device that, on its face, is for consumers: the iPad. With the device’s multitouch gesture controls, always-on connectivity and fast processing power, boring, static graphs and pie charts are being brought to life through real-time data and easy publishing tools. One of the best examples of this trend is the data visualization application suite Roambi, which is specifically tailored to the iOS platform, but many apps are quickly filling the space and changing the way we view data in the workplace.
Interactive charts with a few swipes of the finger
Designed by San Diego mobile app maker MeLLmo, Roambi allows anyone to easily handle and manipulate data from a mobile device to create a data visualization and then embed that visualization into a presentation or report. With Roambi Analytics, you can take, for example, a 100-column-by-500-row spreadsheet and turn it into a visually pleasing and interactive graph or chart. It comes with a series of 10 visualizations, each with its own interface and analytic functionality, aimed at different types of data analysis scenarios. For example, the Cardex allows you to flip, Rolodex-style, through pages of similar reports, to look at, say, sales by region. Once you pull up a report, you can swipe, tap and zoom to drill down into the data, change time frames or otherwise manipulate the data to suit your needs. The separate Roambi Flow app allows you to embed these visualizations into presentations or reports.
The analytics piece debuted in 2009, while Roambi Flow was just introduced in Sept. 2011. Roambi has more than 84,000 customers today. Users can download a free or paid version of the product that is hosted in the cloud from Apple’s App Store that any individual or company can use. But the way its 200 Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 enterprise customers are using the product requires a much bigger investment.
For $795 per user, MeLLmo will install its Roambi product package on a company’s server. The server software sucks data out of traditional business intelligence systems currently in use at companies, like those from SAP, IBM, Oracle or Salesforce.com. Roambi then takes those numbers and sends them to the app for users to play with.
Mobilized workforce requires a mobile approach to data
The folks at MeLLmo say they saw the ongoing explosion of mobile devices coming several years ago and knew it was going to call for a totally different way of accessing and using number-heavy information. People wouldn’t stop needing to dig deep into data, but they would likely be using different devices to do it.
“The typical delivery method for number-intensive data was either in a static dashboard or pie charts, bar charts, or spreadsheets with lots of tabs to click through,” said Quinton Alsbury, the president of MeLLmo. “It was a very analytic process that expected someone to sit at a desktop for a long period of time. But the mobile use case is completely different. [Our customers] are pulling these devices out as they’re walking into a meeting.”
And because those devices are oftentimes an iPhone or an iPad, MeLLmo jumped to take advantage of what Apple’s mobile platform offered. “The rich graphical nature of the iOS platform, touch interaction, the fact that you can store data on the device,” he said, “that set us about creating Roambi.” Along with the fast adoption of the platform, it’s the reason Roambi debuted on iOS.
It’s not a given that business intelligence software on the iPad would automatically be good, however. MeLLmo was keenly aware that iPad users have high expectations of the personal tasks they may do on the device — check email or Twitter, play games, and so on — which meant the experience of using a productivity app like Roambi had to meet iPad users’ expectations. The quality and ease of use could not taper off just because it was for a business application, said Alsbury. So the company worked hard to make the touching, zooming and tapping interactions as iOS-like as possible.
To make it even more relevant for people to actually use these charts and graphs, Roambi Flow users can use the app to publish data visualizations directly into a presentation or a report. But these aren’t static pie charts or graphs. They pull real-time data that stays up-to-date as you give a sales pitch or present to the boss.
From a user perspective, an added bonus is that the other people in the meeting can be more engaged. Todd Barr, the chief marketing officer at Alfresco who also advocates for using tablets to make meetings better, believes products like Roambi Flow can improve the quality of meetings and even business outcomes.
At many company meetings, you are handed a printout of data or you watch a static slide presentation. “You are expected to look at the report and believe what that person’s saying — which is fine, but it’s sort of a foregone conclusion,” said Barr. “They’re interpreting the data and giving it to you in a report format. But there’s not the ability to manipulate it yourself and draw your own conclusion or validate their conclusions.”
The iPad enterprise
It’s not just the graphics and connectivity of the iPad that attracts developers like MeLLmo to it: It’s the device’s reach.
The iPad is making major inroads into corporations. In 2011, businesses spent $6 billion on buying iPads for employees, and that number is expected to go up to $10 billion in 2012, according to Forrester Research’s recently published Global Tech Outlook. In addition, Apple’s tablets have made their way onto corporate networks not only by the IT department’s issuing the device but also by employees bringing them from home to work.
MeLLmo isn’t the only company out there to see the possibilities the iPad presents for new ways to access and manipulate data. Another popular app is Tableau, which renders business intelligence data in an easy-to-use iPad app.
Steve De Brun, the co-founder of Stock Touch, an iPad finance app that lets users visualize stock market winners and losers with real-time info, says apps like his and Roambi Flow and Tableau are just a tiny bit of what is to come. The new wave of iPad-centric data visualization tools will change the way we work.
“We are just at the very beginning of the cool stuff people are going to be seeing. Whether financial information or business intelligence or data visualization on a consumer level, we’re just seeing the first seedlings of ideas,” he said. “In three to five years everything will be built on these early ideas. People will have the expectation that you can move, manipulate and dive into data.”