Directions Magazine interviewed Scott Caulk, IDV’s director of product management, about the latest release of Visual Fusion (5.0), released on October 26.
Directions Magazine (DM): What's the big news with this new version? Why should folks care, or current users upgrade?
Scott Caulk (SC): For this release we continued to focus on (1) empowering the business user to interact with and analyze data, and (2) shortening the time it takes to develop the applications/solutions that facilitate this interaction. New data analysis tools, new data authoring tools, and SharePoint 2010 integration are my favorite new capabilities.
With the Visual Fusion 4.5 release last year we added out-of-the-box, no-code temporal visualization. Now with Visual Fusion 5.0 we've taken it to the next level by adding out-of-the-box analytics visualization. Coordinated interaction in the three contexts of location, time and analytics gives the end user the full context of their data, as well as incredibly powerful insight into all the relevant data that are important to the task, problem or question that is confronting them. Specifically, Visual Fusion 5.0 is adding the concept of data item visualization via interactive lists, charts and graphs that are available either directly out-of-the-box or via five minutes worth of configuration. New data filters, data slicers, tools and controls multiply the impact of all of our data visualization options.
Visual Fusion 5.0 also brings data authoring and editing into applications built on the product. Business users can not only draw geospatial data like points, lines and polygons, but they can also edit all the attribute data that go along with that. And it doesn't matter what the internal data source is—SharePoint, SQL Server, ArcSDE, etc.—they are all valid targets. The real key is that the interfaces for this are very easy-to-use and not intimidating to business users. Another exciting facet of data authoring in Visual Fusion 5.0 is that you can save line and polygon data directly into a SharePoint List, minimizing the need for a spatial database.
Of course, our SharePoint integration goes well beyond just taking advantage of and extending the tool's content management capabilities. With Visual Fusion 5.0 we are now fully integrated with SharePoint 2010, and continue to leverage security, workflow, Excel Services, InfoPath Services, site templates and more for building both highly customized solutions and no-code, rapidly developed situational applications. One specific new capability to highlight is geo-alerting. SharePoint has the notion of alerts on a data source, which is essentially an email notification whenever data are updated based on a set of criteria. Visual Fusion 5.0 extends these criteria to include a geographic area, which the end user defines by drawing on a map. This has wide applicability to anyone who has responsibility over or interest in a specific territory or region and wants to be alerted whenever something happens in that area.
DM: How big a deal do you think the SharePoint integration is going to be? Will business people truly be able to take advantage of that? Can you provide examples?
SC: SharePoint has already permeated the business landscape to the point of ubiquity. It is the fastest selling server product in Microsoft history and has over 100 million individual users. SharePoint is a business user tool, just as Visual Fusion is, and offers so much important infrastructure, from content management, to security, to search, to rapid application development, that it was an obvious choice for deep product integration. Visual Fusion 5.0 adds integration with SharePoint 2010 to the existing integration with SharePoint 2007.
Our customers use this integration for two very important, but distinct goals: (1) build the one killer app that brought them to Visual Fusion in the first place, and (2) use Visual Fusion's unique mashup capabilities to build countless situational apps as needs arise. Trends suggest that more and more business people are, in fact, using self-service BI tools like our product, and if that trend continues, Visual Fusion is perfectly positioned for this. If the trend for business users building lots of situational apps does not hold, then we still gain all the infrastructure advantages for building out that one unique killer app for which all of our customers are currently using Visual Fusion. SharePoint remains a great content management system and collaboration tool for this purpose, and since its foundational capabilities are free with Windows Server, there is no down side for our customers.
DM: Beyond high return on investment (ROI) and “doing more with less,” what's the value in being able to build apps quickly? What kinds of situations truly require fast application development? What is your estimate of the ROI yield?
SC: It's really all about servicing the long tail of IT requests. The IT department in an organization can only service the top priorities that have the biggest dollar impact. However, if you add up the incremental dollar impact of the thousands of IT requests that go unserviced, it adds up to a number value larger than all the serviced requests combined. It's analogous to Amazon or iTunes selling five copies of 1 million different books or songs instead of just 1 million copies of a couple of different titles.
Visual Fusion accomplishes this same benefit for an organization in a couple of different ways. First, as you suggested, an end user can build a no-code situational app in a few minutes or hours, an application that the IT department would never prioritize high enough to build itself. A simple example would be combining an Excel spreadsheet of office locations with a real-time feed of KML-formatted hurricane threat data from an Internet source. With Visual Fusion this can be done in about 10 minutes, including the capability of turning the projected hurricane plume into a spatial query to see a list of potentially impacted offices, the capability to draw and annotate this visualization and share it out with colleagues, and much, much more. A second powerful way Visual Fusion helps to address this long tail of IT-related requests is in the capability to contribute new content to existing applications quickly. In our previous example, the organization probably already has an app with office locations in it, so instead of creating a whole new app it would be faster just to add the KML feed to the existing one. Visual Fusion empowers this activity in a couple of ways, either adding it as a default feed that everyone can use, or adding it as an ad hoc feed that persists until the task of the moment is complete.
We have great ROI reports from our customers on their Visual Fusion “killer apps,” but situational app ROI is much less precise. It just comes down to the aggregate value of the faster analysis, new insights and enhanced decision making that is lost by not having the capability or capacity to create new apps or add new data to existing apps. Typical long tail statistics would say that the long tail accounts for 80% of the total value of a population. In our discussion, that would mean the top IT projects whose scope warrants attention from the IT department would account for 20% of the total possible value of all IT-related requests from the business. Visual Fusion can help take a large bite out of that other 80%.
DM: What's the single most exciting use of Vision Fusion you've got going right now? How will it impact/improve that organization's business model?
SC: It's almost impossible to narrow it to just one. I'm just as excited about the customers buying Visual Fusion off the shelf and developing their own projects, like Chesapeake Energy, Pfizer and the City of Brampton, as I am about the large, long-term projects we do. Unfortunately most of what we do I don't get a chance to discuss because it's either cloaked in secrecy on the public sector side or considered competitive advantage on the commercial side.
One I can talk a little bit about is the ongoing project with the Department of Transportation (DoT) Maritime Administration. Louis Effa is the sponsor of that project on the DoT side and we have been working with him for about two years now. Iteration one was up and in use in about four weeks, and it has been continuously updated and improved upon in regular intervals since then. Effa is using Visual Fusion to consolidate any and all data sources relevant to maritime security into a single common operating picture, then leveraging Visual Fusion features and capabilities so that end users can interact with that visually integrated content. It's proving to be a very valuable resource for many different constituencies within the government, and it's helping them to be more productive in their jobs. The application is incredibly innovative, and the project has been a great breeding ground and proving ground for ideas around new product features and even new products.
DM: Who do you view as your target audience for this new release?
SC: The average business user or analyst is always our target audience. Interacting with data in the full context of location, time and analytics is a tremendously powerful capability that can be applied to just about every unit within an organization in some way. But the tool used for this interaction must be crafted with the business person - not the GIS or BI or IT technician - in mind. Visual Fusion has been architected from the ground up based on this premise, and it has resulted in industry leading user experience that goes hand-in-hand with powerful analysis capabilities. Our customers and target audience are in security and marketing and supply chain and asset tracking and workforce management and commodities trading and government transparency and continuity management and operations intelligence and counter-terrorism and more. But they all share the need for easy-to-use tools that visually integrate disparate data in the full context of location, time and analytics, flanked by powerful tools and controls that allow them to interact, slice and dice, share and act on all of this united content.