BACKGROUND: U S WEST is a regional Bell operating company (RBOC), providing telecommunications services to 14 western and midwestern states. The company has over 50,000 employees, maintains over 16 million network access lines and takes in annual revenues of over $12 billion (1998 figures).
PLATFORMS: We have been testing and using the software on a Compaq Armada 1571DM with a Pentium 200 MHz processor and 64MB of RAM. The operating system was Windows NT 4.0 (Service Pack 5).
PROBLEM SOLVED: Like many companies, U S WEST gathers and maintains large amounts of data, but many internal clients of the IT organization are seeking ways of better leveraging the data sources they've invested in developing. For example:
- Seeking a better way to reveal patterns in a data set describing project personnel allocations (projects exclusively staffed with consultants in all senior roles can present issues).
- Identifying demographic "bubbles" of employees approaching retirement to see where the near-term risk of losing tacit process knowledge is greatest.
- Identifying sales trends from order data for a new product line.
PRODUCT FUNCTIONALITY: We are very impressed with Table Lens from Inxight Software, Inc. as a "companion piece" to Excel, providing a "gestalt" view of a spreadsheet and performing exploratory data analysis. (When trends are identified, you can fall back on the more traditional graphing technologies within Excel to support the insight.)We have also utilized the tool to analyze larger data sets from our corporate data warehouse (using SQL or PERL to format the data as a tab-delimited text file for import). We have not used the tool to examine SAS data sets.
STRENGTHS: The opportunity to view a very large data set as a single graphical image is impressive. However, where Table Lens truly shines is in providing an interface accessible to a non-computer scientist. With minimal practice, the owner of the data set may perform ad hoc exploratory analyses that formerly would have been farmed out to an analyst and taken days or weeks (assuming a motivated analyst could be engaged on the task at all).
WEAKNESSES: Unlike Inxight's flagship hyperbolic tree technology, the Table Lens application is limited to the desktop. It cannot be put on a WWW site to allow users to manipulate the data or collaborate in analysis. The present workaround would be to save a view of the data and then provide the view file to another licensed Table Lens user. One could wish for faster file loading. A five megabyte data file (approximately 46,000 rows) took 2.5 minutes to load. However, once loaded, the time required to manipulate the display was very impressive (e.g., the entire data set could be re-sorted in less than three seconds). Perhaps a later version of the software might be able to provide an estimate of up-front loading time (and provide a warning if a particular file is likely to take a very large amount of time and/or overwhelm the machine entirely).
SELECTION CRITERIA: U S WEST currently possesses massive amounts of data on its organization, its customers and the products and services sold. We are always seeking visualization tools that help make sense of the data; tools that permit end users to perform ad hoc exploratory data analysis are virtually nonexistent. (We are not aware of any other product with Table Lens' functionality.)
DELIVERABLES: Table Lens provides U S WEST with the ability to view, manipulate and analyze a data set at a synoptic level, yet be able to expose underlying detail when needed. We have used this capability in a variety of areas (HR, marketing, knowledge management).
VENDOR SUPPORT: Our installation and use of the product to date has been bug-free. Our experience during the earlier beta release was very positive. Vendor support (primarily via e-mail) was very fast, generally offering short-term workarounds while investigating and delivering the long-term solution.
DOCUMENTATION: The documentation is provided in a separate directory within the release and consists of a user guide and a tutorial. Both documents are well written and thorough in their coverage of the tool's capabilities and are provided in PDF and compiled HTML formats. The tool is sufficiently intuitive. Many users may simply begin playing with it and learn its features by exploring their own data or one of the provided sample data sets.
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