Feb 212014

How do we make sense of the masses of data entering our businesses? Tableau Software founder – and multiple Academy Award winner – Pat Hanrahan thinks he has the answer.

A major challenge presented by the Internet of Things is in understanding the data that’s generated by devices, data visualisation companies like Tableau Software are making easier to interpret what machines are telling us.

“The streaming data coming from sensors is a very interesting opportunity,” Tableau co-founder Pat Hanrahan told Network Globe when discussing machine to machine technologies, “there’s so much potential.”

A Stanford Professor and winner of three academy awards for Computer Generated Imagery, Hanrahan founded Tableau with Christian Chabot and Chris Stolte in 2003 with a mission to help people to understand data. Today the company employs a hundred people after going public last year.

The origins of Tableau came from Hanrahan tiring of the movie industry which he’d been part of since joining Pixar on graduating in 1987, “I was thinking could we use computer graphics for other things, I want to find something more work related so I got interested in data visualisation.”

Hanrahan teamed with Stolte, who was one of his students, to set up a company called Polaris that became the basis of Tableau; “it was a classic Stanford start-up, Google was literally right next to us. I remember when the company started, Larry Page came to our office party.”

Making data accessible

“I’ve always been fascinated with taking the high end stuff and making it more accessible” says Hanrahan. “We’re in a transition phase, where we’re tying to figure out how to make it more accessible.”

Helping those who are passionate about facts and reasons is one of Tableau’s missions,”we have fanatical customers,” says Hanrahan.

“If you’re one of the rare people who use facts and reasons to solve the world’s problems then you are persecuted, you are on a mission, you’re going to convince those crazies that you’re right and you’re wrong and that’s why they’re so fanatical about our product.”

“There’s a little bit of hype around big data right now, but it’s a very real trend;” states Hanrahan. “Just look at the increase in the amount of data that’s been going up exponentially and that’s just the natural result of technology; we have more sensors, we collect more data, we have faster computer and bigger disks.”

A good example of the exponential growth in computing power is in how the smartphone has developed, citing how far computers have come since 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat Kasparov, “at the time both Kasparov and the computer were rated 2700, the best chess programs now are rated 3800.”

“The chess program running on my iPhone is rated above 3000,” observes Hanrahan.

Despite the leaps in power, Hanrahan doesn’t see algorithms completely replacing the human touch, “you have the technology and resources to do this but you still need someone to figure out how to make it accessible.”

One of the keys to understanding information is to be literate in using it, “every student should be efficient in using data,” Hanrahan says and he sees data analysis skills as being essential in the future workforce; “we have to know how to ask the right questions.”

Making the data generated by connected machines accessible to the public, workers and managers is going to be one of the big challenges for organisations over the next decades; it’s an area where companies like Tableau are going to do well.

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