Curious about the trials, tools and techniques in data analytics?

The annual Information Builders Summit is about building community. As company CMO and SVP marketing Michael Corcoran noted in introductory remarks to the keynote assembly at this month’s Orlando event, half of the summit presentations would be delivered by Information Builders (IB) customers, a rare phenomenon at vendor conferences, which demonstrates the value IB places on peer-to-peer knowledge sharing. It is also about data – a phenomenon onto itself that is now said to be doubling in size every year – which may present operational hurdles but also offers potential for rich reward. As Corcoran observed, “there are always challenges working with technology, but the opportunities for working with data have never been better.” But most of all, Information Builders Summit 2015 was about curiousity – curiousity around defining business challenges, identifying technology and tools that allow business and IT to collaborate on problem solving, and around applying community experience to shrink time to value in analytics implementation.

This interest in defining data challenge and potential was evident from event launch in a guest presentation from Hudson Hollister, founder and executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition. A trade association supported by Information Builders among others, the Coalition is focused on advocating for government adoption of non-proprietary data standards for the information that is generated or collected and for its publication in machine-readable data formats. Hollister himself is well versed in the need for policy change on the use of data in Washington: as former counsel to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform of the US House of Representatives and attorney fellow in the Office of Interactive Disclosure at the Securities and Exchange Commission, he has had direct experience of issues in financial research and reporting by the US government.

Hudson Hollister, founder and executive director, Data Transparency Coalition
Hudson Hollister, founder and executive director, Data Transparency Coalition

According to Hollister, there are literally hundreds of agencies and dozens of departments within these at the federal government level, and due to variation in reporting systems virtually no way of understanding where government data actually resides. In terms of US government spending, he offered a simplified view outlining eight ways that spending happens and five different areas of spend reporting for US agencies, that are additional to reporting on federal grants to agencies, payment of contractors to agencies, and payments to grantees and contractors to the OMB (Office of Management and Budget of the Executive Office of the Presidency). In some cases, he added, government methods for information management are archaic at best. For example, when government appropriations are passed through congress, Hollister explained that the treasury department uses pencils and highlighters to figure out what accounts to use to flow funding – manual processes in the service of the largest government budget in the world.

The result is a huge issue with silos in federal financial reporting that Hollister maintained have had serious consequences. The basic “symptom” of this data fragmentation is that nobody knows how many agencies there are in the federal government, or how track their activities. If, for example, someone had had been able to cross reference information on the $536 million loan guarantee provided by the US Department of Energy to California-based maker of solar panels Solyndra with the company’s filings to the SEC in advance of share sale, “they would have found that Solyndra was the riskiest company getting federal guarantees,” Hollister claimed. The essential problem, however, was that data fields between the two organizations were not compatible.

As Hollister explained, progress is underway to improve data management for greater accountability, transparency and to improve citizen review and engagement with government agencies. Data standards were introduced for the first time to track the finances around the federal Stimulus spending campaign of 2009, and business intelligence tools deployed to find shady contractors, and other issues. This “eye opener” convinced congress that data standards should be established for reporting across all government: a new law was introduced in 2011, and the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act passed this year to impose consistent data standards (formats, identification codes) on government agencies. In Hollister’s view, “this may not seem sexy, but it could be transformative” as standards offer the potential for us to “get a handle on the most complex organization in human history.” Consistent data fields and data formats can introduce accountability by allowing citizens to trace spending and apply political analysis to this, will support federal managers as they work to avoid scandals like Solyndra and identify shady contractors and fraud, and will simplify applications for grant recipients, who can submit information once and then have it automatically sent out to different agencies/depts. In terms of ROI on the new legislation, Hollister cited a McKinsey estimate of $US 3 trillion, but believes savings would be in excess of the McKinsey number.

CEO, Information Builders
Gerry Cohen, cofounder and CEO, Information Builders

Beyond data challenges, Summit 2015 also served as a platform to showcase this year’s Information Builders software innovation. A provider of data integrity, integration and intelligence solutions, IB is making a name for itself as the creator of solutions that serve to democratize information by supporting all types of individuals across the organization who are curious about the power of data-driven insight and action. In his presentation, Information Builders cofounder and CEO Gerry Cohen cited a recent Gartner report stating that “IB clearly differentiates itself” through the development of solutions that deliver “pervasive information”: an approach designed to address the needs of the 2 percent of the typical organization’s staff that are technical users, the 8 percent that are able to do some simple analysis, as well as the remaining 90 percent that do not have technical capabilities to work directly with data, but benefit from having analytics results incorporated into operational processes.

While detailed analysis of all IB news was out of scope at the presentation – 225 new features have been built into WebFOCUS 8.1, the latest release of Information Builders’ business intelligence and analytics platform – Cohen noted key attributes of the IB portfolio, and called out several new “favourite strategic features.” In virtually all cases, new functionality is aimed at simplifying the use of data analytics and its operational support by IT, and offering additional user capabilities. For example, while IB systems are designed for rapid scale to ease provisioning and maintenance by IT, the company has supplemented “pull” access to data with “push” access – alarms that are built into reports based on parameters set by the customer to automate the incorporation of data logic into business processes.

Other Cohen highlights of the new WebFOCUS release included:

  • a new Moonbeam charts library that provides 350 variations and APIs to charts that IB might not have, as well as new “matrix capability” that enables the display of five data dimensions on one chart or screen,
  • a portal that has been designed as a Content Management System with the look and feel of a highly customizable dashboard,
  • new adapters for social media and other unstructured data sources, such as Hadoop Hive, Cloudera’s Impala, Apache Drill, Apache Phoenix, MapR (Cohen noted MapR’s high definition database, which is designed for speed in production and real time applications),
  • enlargement of InfoAssist tool set to support the business user, including an easy-to-use interface that allow users to pick up content that they would like to see (from content set up and allowed by developers), and stack information in multi-content containers according to preference.
  • integration of new InfoDiscovery visual capabilities that enable the use of size and animation to tell a story,
  • responsive portal adaptation of WebFOCUS that automatically readjusts widgets to display information in the most logical way on any device. Extended use of auto fit improves visuals to power mobile deployment.
  • a new Technical Support Site featuring easier navigation through the “Magnify” search engine which allows the user to click on a word in the search returns and use this is an added filter to fine tune the search process,
  • new portal ability to allow users to collaborate by sharing portal pages between applications, and to chat about a demo,
  • access to a complete new Maps interface based on ESRI, described by Cohen as the “most sophisticated map interface in the whole industry,”
  • and perhaps most impressive, new Auto Link Content capabilities that allow the user to click one button to automatically link content, enabling impressive drill downs through expanding data sources in “WebFOCUS Roadmaps sessions.”

And on the data quality and integration fronts, Cohen also outlined innovation designed to resolve the kinds of issues Hollister described in the introductory keynote. There are lots of systems, and these share lots of data, he explained, but a data point can be entered into different systems in different ways using different formats. The end result is that the data cannot be found – without master data management. At the event, Cohen introduced Omni-Gen, a data management engine that receives data the end of the day or in real time, cleans it and deposits in a repository that in turn enables data stewardship and remediation services. In his view, the key benefit of the technology – beyond automated data mastering and integration at a competitive price – lies in the method of deployment. While the needs of the data sources typically define what a data repository will look like, with Omni-Gen, Cohen claimed the user starts by designing the repository and working back to the various sources of data. A boon to DB administrators, the Omni-Gen also offers a good example of IB focus on the needs of the business user within the organization.

Of course, the ‘proof is in the putting’ and the Summit offered no shortage of customer presentations aimed at demonstrating the deployment of IB platform components in the service of real life business objectives. Well attended, often by attendees in the same industry, these sessions proved an opportunity for discussion that is part of the IB community building agenda. In 2014, there were 101 Information Builders user group meetings in the US with 3,000 attendees domestically, and 14 international meetings with 200 attendees, in addition to virtual user forums and 8,000 users of the Focal Point Community online Q&A panel. But in terms of use case presentations, the Summit serves as the crown jewels. For those curious about the details, stay tuned for more on IB deployments by Quinte Healthcare Corporation and Queensway Carleton Hospital, Ace Hardware, visual technology pioneers RealD, South African based fund services provider Maitland, freight forwarding multinational OHL, and Raintree Oncology Services and more, as well as analysis of how the IB partner community supports analytics adoption.

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