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Glowing reports

New office technology means your business info may soon come from unusual sources, says Danny Bradbury

Thursday January 13, 2005
The Guardian

You rely on clocks to tell you the time, but would you rely on an ornament to tell you how your sales team is doing? In the executive office of 2005, even your desk lamp might have an opinion.

Relying on spreadsheets to analyse reams of data can hide important trends. Turning the numbers into images can help you absorb information in seconds rather than hours. The tools for visualising commercial information have historically come from the business intelligence (BI) reporting market. This software uses charts to represent complex data that can be sliced and diced by business staff. It is not the sort of thing you use without technical training and the time to understand the results.

Not everyone needs that level of detail, and the tools available to visualise business data are changing. That could be a good thing for time-constrained executives, most of whom don't have the time or the skill for click-and-drill reporting software.

The new information appliance could take the form of a glowing desk ornament, due to ship in the UK this summer. The Stock Orb, from US company Ambient Devices, is a coloured globe that changes hue depending on the conditions. Originally developed to monitor the Dow Jones index, it gradually turns green as the index goes up, and red when it slips. The orb gets its information from Ambient, which broadcasts data over surplus bandwidth on pager networks. Although marketed as a stock tracker, Ambient is adding more information channels to the orb every month - consumers can track pollen count and the weather.

"We're making polite electronics that don't interrupt you when they have information for you," says Ert Dredge, vice-president of software systems, contrasting the orbs with the harsh ringing of mobile phones. The ambient devices are glanceable information sources, he says, much like the clock or the barometer. The company also sells a device with a bank of barometer-like needles, designed to measure three data streams at once.

But these devices will tell more than the time or the weather. Although Ambient is initially targeting the retail market, there are opportunities for corporate users, too, says Dredge. The company's premium account service lets customers rent a slice of bandwidth on the wireless network. Customers can then use a simple software development interface to relay their data across the network. The orb can then change colour and pulse depending on what's happening in your company. If your sales team is on target, the orb could turn green. If it is underperforming, it could glow an angry red.

Adam Oliver, head of access to information at BT Global Services, wants to take the idea a stage further, with orbs that provide more information on demand. "A device that tells you about something by changing colour can only tell you so much information, but then you have to go on to your PC to get more detail," he says. "I wanted something that had a lot more colour and sound, and which spoke to you, reading you information."

Oliver's devices, which he hopes will ship within 18 months, will be able to alert users to information using coloured patterns displayed on a 5 x 7 coloured grid, and they will read out the details in response to hand gestures. He sees potential applications in healthcare, for example, where a device could display coloured areas on the screen growing gradually brighter to indicate waiting patients. "You could wave your hand and say 'patients' and it would give you more in-depth information."

These orb devices are new interfaces looking for data sources that could benefit from their glanceable displays. The traditional business intelligence companies with a background in structuring and storing gigabytes of complex information are looking at the problem from the other way around. They have the data, but are in need of a display mechanism.

Sadly, glowing orbs won't solve their problems because the interface needs to be more interactive. "Take something like sales," says Nigel Youell, UK marketing director of BI firm Hyperion. "You need to know who sold what, what channel it went through, to what region, to which customers, at what price and when it was bought."

In September, Hyperion released a product called Visual Explorer along with its Essbase data analysis software. Customers can view the data using objects with different shapes and colours that change as you drag different dimensions of data into the picture.

While Hyperion comes from a business intelligence background, other firms are focusing on the reporting side - what Tawfik Hammoud, vice-president of marketing at Canadian data visualisation firm Antarctica, calls the "last mile of business intelligence". Antarctica, which hopes to enter the UK this year, uses principles by Yale professor Edward Tufte, including stripping out everything that doesn't represent data.

A US-based competitor, the Hive Group, focuses on tree mapping, a technique developed at the University of Maryland. Tree mapping takes a hierarchical "tree" of information and turns it on its end, displaying the most detailed pieces of data - the roots - as squares inside supersets of data that help to categorise and describe data more easily.

The Hive Group has developed applications to visually browse the index of news feeds at news service NewsisFree, along with Amazon's huge product index. But the Amazon browser is a pilot application, built using the web retailer's freely available web services interface. Amazon isn't using Honeycomb commercially to provide a better shopping experience, and neither are many other e-commerce players, says Tony Jewitt, the Hive Group's chief executive. "The old guard at the e-commerce companies says it is too complex for the average online shopper. I don't buy that."

Even if e-commerce providers aren't interested, the Department of Defence and intelligence agencies in the US are. They use it to analyse everything from equipment inventory to patterns in non-mainstream news reports.

While constantly evolving reporting tools will appeal to tactical decision makers, the new generation of polite electronics that let you know in passing how your sales team is doing will be useful to executives who don't always have time for details.

Perhaps these data-rich orbs are also a sign of the times. In the 1970s, executive toys such as the Newton's Cradle just looked pretty, but in the efficiency-mad 21st century, even desk ornaments will have to know what is going on in the office.


Ambient Devices


Hive Group

Edward Tufte


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