"When done well, visualization has the potential not only to support science but to also influence it," Meyer said. "We have to move beyond thinking that visualization is just about pretty pictures and instead embrace that it is a deep investigation into sense making."
Dashboards are one form of visualization that could be used less, Shahani-Mulligan said.
Organizations have been using dashboards for well over a decade and not much has changed with them over that time, Shahani-Mulligan said. While they are fine for capturing key performance indicators and basic performance metrics, they are too brittle for advanced and timely analysis of big data, she said.
Dashboards are biased to look at data from predetermined contexts. They limit the amount of data that can be seen. And they aren't interactive. "You can't really dig in and see what is happening underneath the visuals," Shahani-Mulligan said.
"This is a problem that we need to solve as data becomes updated from sources faster, as decision times to get down to a day or week, and as more sources of data become available," Shahani-Mulligan said. "We need to make it possible for businesses to see more information than they have been able to do."
An emerging technique, called interactive storytelling, promises to provide a way to interact with data in more natural ways, Shahani-Mulligan said. ClearStory uses the Apache Spark steaming data-processing software as part of an interactive storytelling system.
"Interactive storytelling is about bringing more data to the surface, so [business executives] can actually see it in a way that has context and meaning," Shahani-Mulligan said. She estimated that interactive storytelling could help businesses make decisions twice as quickly as they could by using traditional tools.
Much of big-data analysis is based on statistics, which few software engineers know how to do in detail, said Pinterest Chief Data Scientist John Rauser, who also worked at Amazon as a chief architect.
"I suspect many people in this audience are faking it when it comes to statistics," Rauser said, provoking an audible collective gasp from the audience.
Nonetheless, not having intimate knowledge in power analysis, generalized linear models or other statistical methods does not mean that meaningful statistical analysis can't be done, he said. Statistics is a field heavy in dense mathematical formulas, but the basic concepts are intuitive to the locally minded. Instead, engineers should look closely at what they are studying, and translate the questions being asked into a series of simple computational methods.
"If you can program a computer, you have direct access to the deepest and most fundamental ideas in statistics," Rauser said.
Sign up for Computerworld eNewsletters.