Why Data Visualization is Like a Map of the World

Every point on Earth has its own coordinates, a latitude and longitude. For the average person, a list of latitudes and longitudes is useless, but a globe is a powerful tool. Were it not for maps—the visualization of the world’s coordinates—we humans would have a far more difficult time understanding the relative location of two destinations (meaning the location of a place in relation to another place); determining the most direct route from point A to point B; or reasoning that it is easier to go from point A to point B to point C than it is to go from point A to point C to point B. Maps afford us a representation of the data that defines our understanding of the world. They also allow us to make better decisions about how we will interact with our world, and, therefore, save us hard-won time and hard-earned money along the way. As John Noble Wilford, author of The Mapmakers, notes, “Maps embody a perspective of that which is known and a perception of that which may be worth knowing.”

Such is the case with business intelligence and data visualization: data visualization allows us an important perspective of that which is known about our business, and with the resulting perception, we are able to determine what is worth knowing (i.e., what is worth exploring further, how our strategies can evolve, and where we can effect change). Coordinates are essential to maps, which are essential to many of the decisions we make every day about how we arrive at work in the most timely fashion or how much money we’re willing to spend on gas to drive from Texas to Colorado. Similarly, business intelligence is essential to data visualization. Business intelligence offers the raw information—the spreadsheets, for instance—while data visualization offers the visual representation of the data that makes it useable and actionable. And this usability is what makes an organization smarter, and more profitable.

There are very few roles in a company that necessitate seeing row upon row of raw data that then requires filtering, running macros, running regressions, and so forth. What most organizations need is to know what is most relevant in that data, a visual of where the minefields are and where the opportunities lie in wait. Data visualization—the representation of that information—allows you to analyze data on the spot, identify trends more quickly, and communicate more effectively to a wider variety of groups. For instance, presenting to CEOs and VPs about the role of travel in the corporate budget is as simple as presenting to the sales team about the importance of compliance.

So why does this matter for Travel Management Companies? Data visualization can take the past two years’ worth of traveler data for a given company and show quite clearly that the organization’s travel has shifted. The company’s employees that travel to Chicago have shifted room nights from the downtown Hilton to the new Virgin Hotel when it opened. The immediate benefit is the ability to negotiate a better rate. The secondary benefit is the ability to present the information to clients in real time, in a visually appealing way, and prove the worth of your services. The third benefit is knowing whether the travelers themselves are adhering to your companies compliance rules.

Further, when it comes to compliance, data visualization simplifies the conversation around where compliance is proving value and where new travel policies may be needed in order to save corporate resources.  For instance, data visualization can readily show a travel team what percentage of travel was in compliance, and what areas have the highest rate of non-compliance (i.e., too many refundable air tickets or a high percentage of expensive last-minute hotel bookings)?

Imagine if any of these things were presented as spreadsheets of data. The impact of the data would not nearly be as powerful as when a well-designed visual is offered. A big blue slice of more expensive Virgin hotel pie next to a tiny red slice of more affordable Hilton makes the attention to the matter of rate negotiation more obvious and urgent. (The resulting benefits of the negotiation can be presented in a similarly appealing way.)

Maps allow us to navigate the world; data visualization allows us to navigate information. Data visualization is more than a pretty face. It is the cumulative step in the data journey that illuminates the important information and allows it to be communicated rapidly and accurately. Some like to say that data visualization just slows down the process of understanding the information, but the goal is quite the opposite, to isolate what is important and speed up the analysis and reporting of those essential details. To this end, business intelligence is essential to data visualization, and data visualization is essential to your clients’ success.