Death to numbers

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When it comes to info, I just want the graphics

I hate spreadsheets—they’re dammed mazes developed by numerate savants. But thanks to the infographics revolution, the Excel spreadsheet may soon be consigned to Uriah Heap’s dustbin.

All it needs is for Auckland company Futuretech Labs to have its way. Futuretech specialises in data visualisation—turning complex information into colourful visual maps, charts and annotated diagrams. In other words, Futuretech makes spreadsheets fun.

Infographics are hardly new; I used to love the diagrams in Look & Learn magazines. I bought my first Wired just to read the graphs. Sad? No! Seeing data displayed so engagingly was a revelation. What’s new is that Futuretech is applying it through the cloud where dynamic visual data can be updated in real time and operate on any internet-enabled computer—no special software needed, thank you.

Futuretech’s products are a testament to the policy that you just don’t know where the next big thing may come from—a lesson still thankfully understood by the Ministry of Science and Innovation, which granted it 50 percent funding to the tune of $497,000.

Three years into development, Futuretech is close to releasing its first product: the world’s first, real-time product recall management system. Product recalls are a logistical nightmare and more common than you think. Canada, a trial market for Futuretech, has more than 300 a year.

In partnership with HP, Futuretech won a tender to provide a global system for handling such recalls. The tender was offered by GS1, an NGO that issues barcodes and sets global business standards. GS1 has 1.2 million member companies, so whatever Futuretech creates has the potential to become the global standard.

The product, called Evidentia, allows companies and regulators to visualise all the information about the product recall down to an individual shop, track the process over time and alert parties to their responsibilities. A mash-up of maps, charts, coloured buttons and text boxes makes the system looks more like a game than a serious business tool. “That’s the genius of it,” says Richard McLean, a spokesperson for Futuretech. “Real-time data visualisation makes complex information easy to access and improves speed, accuracy and transparency.”

The game aspect is no accident. The software has its roots in Virtual Spectator, the TV graphics system made famous during the America’s Cup. Futuretech is part owned by Craig Meek, co-founder of Virtual Spectator.

Craig Adams, an MSI investment manager, says the funding reflects both the potential of the market and Meek’s experience in making data dance. “Futuretech has an ambitious vision for developing technology for visualising information in a business context. It has a wealth of experience with the technology and strong relationships to help get the technology to a global market.”

That market will be tested in June, when Evidentia will be trialled by what McLean calls a “multibillion-dollar USA food manufacturer”.

And product recalls are just the beginning. McLean says Evidentia will have applications in IT infrastructure visualisation (seeing the performance of all your computers) and civil defense (see sidebar). “We’re conservative about forecasting revenues, but the revenue potential for Evidentia is very significant, because it can support an unlimited number of applications.”

If we restricted our science funding to the things we’re already good at—growing stuff—then Futuretech would not exist. And the spreadsheet may live on for another cruel decade. Thanks MSI.

Vincent Heeringa is co-founder and publisher of Idealog

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Shaking the information tree

Evidentia is trying to convince the Christchurch City Council to adopt its data visualisation product to help manage the reconstruction. By mashing maps with data about seismology from GNS, infrastructure from Civil Defense, construction from the likes of Hawkins and Fletcher Building and insurance from private insurers and EQC, Evidentia can potentially coordinate efforts onscreen.

Here’s how it could work.

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