The big trend for enterprise IT in 2011 was consumerization: Millions of iPhones and iPads started making their way onto corporate networks. In 2012, the next big thing will be what we do with those devices at the office. When it comes to the iPad specifically, one of the most useful ways to incorporate the touchscreen device into your workflow is as a tool to visualize and manipulate data.
A lot of jobs in operations, marketing, sales, finance or even the government revolve around wrestling with huge spreadsheets and wrangling data to fit into reports or presentations. But our work lives are changing. We are not always confined to a computer or a desk anymore. But we are almost always connected to the Web. Our attention spans have been trained to expect constant flows of real-time information, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. And many of us carry iPads to work now.
That is why it is so exciting that there are a growing number of apps that give us new ways to gather, absorb and manipulate data necessary to get our jobs done. Here are a few of the more interesting ones out there that take advantage of Apple’s tablet, which is drawing the most attention from enterprise app makers these days because of its reach. (It is worth noting that there are a few developments on this front for Android, but that is beyond the scope of this piece.)
Business intelligence on the iPad
Tableau Mobile is an iPad app that takes mounds of data and turns it into visually pleasing and easy-to-understand interpretations. It can take business intelligence data and repackage it so people can process and understand data more quickly, which in turn helps democratize that information and enable better business decisions. Tableau has been on the Web for a while, but its iPad app aimed at corporate customers debuted in Aug. 2011. It is the product of Seattle-based Tableau Software, which says it currently has 65,000 customers.
The app allows anyone to take the data of her choice to create any kind of chart or graph (the app itself is free but does require users to have Tableau Server installed). The twist that makes it so perfect for the iPad and its fast processor, smooth graphics and touch interface is Tableau makes those charts and graphs interactive: You can tap on data points for more information or to drill down for a more granular view.
Tableau’s iPad app isn’t aimed at any industry specifically, but it is geared for the enterprise-level audience: Companies worried about privacy can have the software installed on their server, behind a firewall, so sensitive internal data used in the app stays private among employees.
Similar to Tableau, Roambi is a suite of products that also takes business intelligence data and spits out cool data visualizations. The app combines 10 different analytical scenarios into a mobile package, which output charts and graphs instantly. It is intended for people who don’t sit at a desk all day but have to make decisions using smart data on the fly. Like Tableau Mobile, Roambi Analytics is available via the Web or as an iPad app, called Roambi Analytics Visualizer. It requires access to Roambi’s Analytics Publisher, which could be a free “lite” version of the service for individuals, a paid hosted subscription for small businesses or a server-level installation for enterprise customers.
The gravitation of the software to the iPad made sense for MeLLmo, the San Diego–based company that created Roambi, because of changing expectations and habits when it comes to the devices they work on.
“The experience of utilizing and accessing data on a mobile device is much different than a laptop or traditional scenario,” said Quinton Alsbury, the president of MeLLmo. “The typical delivery method for number-intensive data was either in a static dashboard or pie charts, bar charts, or tabs to click through. [It was a] very analytic process that expected someone to sit at a desktop for a long period of time.”
Today’s mobile workforce is different, he argues, in that it calls for a new experience when it comes to sifting through data. The people that use Roambi, which is not industry-specific, “are pulling these devices out as they’re walking into a meeting.”
Beyond allowing users to access and understand important data quickly, Roambi has another application that allows that information to stay up to date in real time. Roambi Flow is a publishing app that takes your Roambi Analytics–created charts and graphs and puts them into a report or a presentation. But you don’t have to worry about whether your chart contains old information by the time you actually present or deliver the report, because all the data is kept up to date in real time via a Web connection.
And if you are presenting in a meeting, others with iPads can pull out your report with Roambi graphs and dive into the data themselves. Apps like Roambi and Tableau have this added benefit, which is that they make for a much more interactive, not to mention engaging, way of presenting information.
When you are handed a report at a meeting today, you are merely absorbing the presenter’s foregone conclusion, notes Todd Barr, the CMO of Alfresco, a company that uses Tableau. “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. What’s cool about these dynamic tools . . . is you get a manipulatable graph so you can do something with it, and look at it in a slightly different way.”
Keeping tabs on the stock market
For those whose jobs rely on knowing the big winners of the stock market each day, StockTouch is a cool way of keeping tabs on what’s happening via your iPad.
With the app you get a grid of 900 companies, separated into the nine main industry sectors — finance, tech, health care, consumer goods, utilities, etc. — that acts as a heat map, showing you the winners and losers of the moment in real time. Red indicates a stock is down; green indicates it’s up. You can view the changes over the past day, week, month, three months, six months, year or five years.
Leveraging the best parts of the iPad’s touch-based interface, you can zoom in to see specific industries and companies or the grid as a whole, with a pleasing audible feedback “ding.” And as you dig through the app, it allows you to customize the data. You can view the company’s ticker grids however you want: in a spiral of largest to smallest companies, in descending order of best-performing to least, by most activity or alphabetically.
Steve de Brun, the co-founder of StockTouch and the app’s designer, says it’s mostly financial pros who are interested in this, though consumer-level investors have been downloading it too since it debuted six months ago. (Apple named it best finance iPad app of 2011.)
And though not much else like it is out there for those who work in finance, it seems like a no-brainer as a way to empower employees who are mobile. Employees equipped with iPads who need up-to-the-minute information about how the stock market is doing don’t have to sit at a terminal or look at a series of numbers. The way you visualize the data, and where you do it, is up to you.
One to watch
Though it is still in private beta, a new product from Lucky Sort, a Portland, Ore., startup, has some interesting ideas of its own in this area that could prove useful for a lot of different lines of work, from folks in sales to those who work in media or academia.
Its iPad app, called TopicWatch, helps users sift through large amounts of unstructured data and find trends and patterns — for instance, which presidential candidate everyone is talking about — and turns it into a graphic representation to help people visualize the frequency of those mentions. The data TopicWatch deals with doesn’t have to be just numbers, like a lot of the other apps discussed here, but information found in social media feeds like Twitter or Facebook, government filings, and news.
The service is currently in closed beta, but in May 2012 it should open access to its website and accompanying iPad app.
These kinds of apps that let individuals work with large amounts of information in creative, interactive ways are going to become mainstream. There’s a ton of momentum in this area right now, notes StockTouch’s de Brun.
“We are just at the very beginning of the cool stuff people are going to be seeing,” he said. “Whether financial info or business intelligence or data visualization on a consumer level, we’re just seeing the first seedlings of ideas. 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.”
Though many of these apps are debuting on iOS because of the huge lead Apple has in mobile devices in the enterprise world, as Android devices begin to catch up, it’s conceivable these apps will start to make their way to devices from other brands as well.
As devices proliferate, so will the apps. And these kinds of apps can benefit all industries where large amounts of data come into play, especially when there is a ton of data from business intelligence software but only a select few people to interpret it. Apps that help visualize that data make it accessible to people in more departments and at more levels. And having more employees empowered to analyze information ultimately means better business decisions and outcomes.