Is the utility business really enhanced by the widespread (and often messy) use of visualization?

The business value of an analytics program is severely devalued if the utility can't make better decisions because the information presented doesn’t make sense. While I'll agree, there is nothing worse than the poor use of graphical information, wonky charts, or useless infographics, it is a strategic mistake to underinvest in the use of visualization to analyze and interpret data or convey information.

This effective use of data visualization depends on understanding how humans process information. This requires visual literacy and a clear understanding of when to incorporate visualization strategies and how they can be beneficial in all aspects of the utility business.

Visualization-based tools are sufficiently advanced to support this process and allow both operational and business users to pull together disparate data sources (sometimes called a “mashup” by the cool kids) to create custom views that support highly customizable and relevant analytics. There are literally dozens of tools available to every user across the enterprise, which means that understanding how and when you want to use visualization to solve business problems should be the first question, not the last.

Data Democratization

Mobile devices such as tablets, low-cost laptops, and even smartphones carry enough onboard graphics power to make intuitive, visualization-based data discovery tools available to multiple users across the enterprise. While data scientists have an important role in designing powerful and accurate models for the utility, the ability to explore data and draw actionable conclusions is available for everyone (democratization). Indeed, if properly governed and secured (repeat: secure your enterprise), the widespread use of visual analytics has the potential to drive down operating costs and drive up surprising forms of innovation.

However, visualizations are not inherently helpful—in fact, they can be confusing and misleading. The utility needs to incorporate visualization technologies that do more than just describe current state; they must help the utility predict emerging conditions on the grid, reveal hidden relationships that introduce new efficiencies, and provide stronger decision-making capabilities.

Data visualization strategies are quite varied, and though they may be tuned to support the underlying data classes, the best visualization tools are the ones that will help their users readily home in on the subject of their analysis.

In particular, if your utility is making an investment in visualization tools for operational support, there are several general characteristics that need to be considered:

  • The ability to work with a real-time data stream

  • Support for multiuser collaboration

  • Fast processing time

  • Integration with other key systems

  • The ability to export analysis for reporting

Other features that may be important are the ability to access some subset of the information on a mobile device, touch optimization (especially for work-force applications or operators), and—importantly for the utility—governance features that provide a chain of custody for data lineage and user operations on the data.

And while you're making your new plans to improve your visualization strategy, don't forget to think about virtual reality for virtual field operations.