Data For Good

Visual analytics company helps the man-and-woman-in-the-street see and understand data to make transformative decisions.

STORY BY GRACE MA

In a world where there is no lack of information, how do we analyse it more effectively when making better decisions? That was the question on Tableau co-founder Christopher Stolte’s mind when he was a computer science doctorate student at Stanford University.

The answer came in the form of a US Department of Defense project aimed at increasing people’s ability to analyse information visually. Together with his thesis advisor Prof Patrick Hanrahan, founding member of Pixar and a three-time Academy Award winner in the areas of science, technology and computer graphics, Stolte developed VizQL, which lets people analyse data by building ‘drag-and-drop’ pictures of what they want to see. In jumped Stanford Business School entrepreneurship student Christian Chabot, who saw the potential in the technology, and Tableau was started in 2003.

Today, Stolte, Hanrahan and Chabot steer Tableau as its technical advisor, chief scientist and chairman, respectively. Their vision is simple: data analysis should inspire discovery; empower people to think, act and deliver; and work in the hands of anyone from students to businesses and non-profit organisations. Students and non-profits are eligible for free download of Tableau software, with a fee charged by the administrating vendors for non-profit downloads.

An individual can visualise their monthly expenses and pinpoint specific areas of overspending; while businesses can uncover marketing trends and adjust their campaigns for higher success rates almost in real-time. More significantly, Tableau also works through its foundation to empower charity organisations to scale up on their social impact. Tableau Foundation director Neal Myrick said: “Ultimately, people use data to make decisions, but operationalising data for daily decision-making is something that non-profits have always assumed was something they couldn’t do or didn’t know how to do. That is the hurdle we’re overcoming; convincing them that everyone can be a data person and do great things in their communities.”

In Singapore, organisations from retail and transport companies to educational institutes have leveraged on Tableau’s intuitive interface to gain a common point of accurate reference for its employees to make effective operational decisions. Ride-hailing application Grab tapped on the analysed data to roll out product offerings specifically catered to different country markets; retail conglomerate Metro was able to react strategically to consumer purchasing behaviour; and coaches, sports scientists, physiologists and nutritionists at the Singapore Sports Institute had access to a single set of shared information to optimise training for top athletes in the run-up to competitions.

Tableau Foundation also awarded a three-year grant consisting of Tableau’s licenses and training services worth over US$81,000 to the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) last November. “Huge amounts of data can now be synced, refreshed automatically and analysed quickly, resulting in time savings,” said Yee Mun Choy, NVPC’s assistant director of knowledge and advocacy. “Something that took three hours on Excel previously, such as producing KPI reports, now only takes five minutes using the Tableau software.” Tableau Foundation also selected five other non-profits to each get US$15,000 community grant funding.

In September, the foundation signed an agreement with the Singapore statutory board Government Technology Agency of Singapore to equip at least 1,500 public officers with core skillsets and advanced visual analytics techniques over the next three years.

Myrick said: “The next shift is from thinking of data as something an organisation reports to a funder at the end of a project to something that the people throughout the organisation look at every day to make critical decisions in their work. And this is not just limited to programme work. Fundraisers, operations teams, boards and executives — all should be able to access current, insightful, and easy-to-understand data in their work.”

 

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