Many organizations are currently facing the information deluge known as big data, and while the trend generates a fair share of hype, it is likely to hold fast in the consciousness of business stakeholders. Big data's large volume may necessitate some new IT investments, such as new platforms to store and provide access to information without performance bottlenecks. However, this does not mean IT teams need to throw out all of the fundamentals of how they currently deliver critical data to users.
In fact, many of the same trends currently affecting the design of reporting tools for regular data are also useful within a big data context. For example, Mary Shacklett, president of Transworld Data, recently wrote a TechWorld article in which she highlighted the importance of writing reports that are actionable and tailored to specific users.
"In the old days, systems analysts sat down with business users to define online and batch reporting requirements that included report formats, labels for columns, which data appeared in each column, and so on," Shacklett wrote. "Big data presents a different set of reporting challenges when it comes to defining reports because its purposes are much more diverse; also, companies are confronted with myriad big data reporting choices from vendors, and that can add to the confusion when it's time to standardize reporting."
The scale and diversity of needs may evolve for big data environments when compared with traditional systems, but the functionality that enables successful reporting tool development does not. As Shacklett noted, report writers need to identify specific problems to solve and decide how to best showcase that data. For example, a spreadsheet chart may suffice for moderate data sets, but visualizations are better suited for complex or large amounts of information.
Considerations for reporting tools
These lessons also have implications for developers, as it is more difficult to address the needs of a larger number of users. This means that the reporting tools used to access data must be tailored for the people who will leverage them. Whereas it may be absolutely necessary to implement robust visualization features for one department due to the types of reports they generate on a regular basis, such features may be wasted in other departments. These factors must be addressed regardless of the size or variety of an organization's data.
As a 2012 IBM report noted, big data is simply an evolution of traditional analytics processes. Reporting tools may have had to change to accommodate both technical and non-IT users, but the core elements of an effective solution remain:
The only caveat to these is perhaps the growing importance of visualizations. As IBM noted, some of today's datasets are too large to fully understand with basic displays such as spreadsheets. This means users need tools to help them explore the vast tomes of information now available without getting bogged down by data overload.