IT is usually focused on the technology that enables visualization but doesn't use the technology itself, explains Stephen Few, principal and founder of Perceptual Edge, a consultancy that specializes in data visualization. Few, who has a background in IT and business intelligence, founded the consultancy in 2003 after taking a workshop taught by visualization guru Edward Tufte. Tufte is renowned for developing data visualization as a discipline and wrote the definitive book on the subject in 1983, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Few has become well-known himself as a dataviz expert and has written several books, including Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten.
Even in IT departments that have a resident business intelligence analyst, that person is most often building production reports upon request, says Few. "But typically they don't understand the data. They don't really know how people are using the data they're putting in that report," he says.
"There's a disconnect between the people who actually work with data to make decisions and the [IT] people who supply the data they need," Few continues. "Finding people that really understand the data and understand the technologies that organization has to distribute the data -- finding those two things in a single person -- is relatively rare." (For other necessary skills, see Qualities of a good data visualizer.)
What Few and others are talking about is the more finely honed aesthetic sense that today's data visualization requires. Boris Evelson, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, says there are two levels of data visualization skills emerging. One level refers to a person's ability to use the latest technology and tools to analyze and present information. Rather than using Excel or even Cognos, for example, data analysts are using Tableau or Spotfire to create more visually pleasing and more easily comprehended charts and scatter plots. (See 22 free tools for data visualization and analysis for more suggestions.)