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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Real-World BI: Why Analytics Must Grow

At a recent event staged at Boston's historic Fenway Park, a presentation by Yellowfin highlighted the importance of analytics scalability.

Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, was a fitting backdrop for a recent partnering event sponsored by business intelligence (BI) firm Yellowfin Inc.

Along with Billy Beane and his Oakland A's, Theo Epstein's Boston Red Sox helped popularize the use of advanced analytics (so-called "Sabermetrics") to measure player performance in a revolutionary way. Nowadays, teams use advanced analytics to guide or drive almost all hiring activity, from the drafting of amateur player prospects and the wooing of high-value free agents to the scouting, hiring, and retention of otherwise unheralded diamonds in the rough.

In this regard, Yellowfin's choice of Fenway Park wasn't just a picturesque backdrop. As product consultant Jessica Flores demonstrated, baseball statistics can be explored, filtered, and combined in novel ways to illustrate patterns, highlight anomalies, and tell stories.

Along the way, Flores put Yellowfin's BI platform through a range of different uses, from generating bread-and-butter reports, charts, and scorecards to interacting with data in dashboards and performing self-service data discovery. Flores used baseball salary data to take attendees through the exploration and discovery process. She used an interactive visualization -- a comparison of ticket prices at Fenway and other Major League parks over time -- to showcase Yellowfin's time-series analysis capabilities. "With the time-series function, you can enable a function to allow some in-chart interactions, with multiple metrics," she explained, blending in a different data set in order to compare ticket prices to team performance.

The upshot, Flores said, is that Red Sox fans -- who, along with Cubs and Yankees fans, paid the highest ticket prices in baseball -- did not get their money's worth in 2015, when the Sox posted a losing record. "With these selections I'm making [as I interact with] that time chart, I'm actually seeing the correlations across the dashboards of how they impact the different dimensions."

Partnering for Success

Notwithstanding its storied baseball backdrop, the Fenway Park event offered much more in the way of substance than style, thanks to testimonials from Yellowfin partners and resellers.

For example, even though Yellowfin likes to position itself as a bedrock BI platform -- a platform for reports, scorecards, and dashboards -- Flores and other presenters made the case that it can scale to address a continuum of analytics use cases, including self-service discovery. (CEO Glen Rabie is famously skeptical of the self-service discovery model. Even though Yellowfin supports a visual discovery-like experience, Rabie has argued that the potential applicability of self service is limited at best.)

Yellowfin's partners and resellers didn't seem at all skeptical. Chance Coble, a principal at Blacklight Solutions Inc., a Yellowfin customer, partner, and reseller, talked about how his company uses Yellowfin to -- in effect -- grow its presence in customer accounts. Prospects come to Blacklight for Yellowfin's bread-and-butter reporting and dashboarding capabilities, Coble said; in most cases, they come back to Blacklight for help in implementing self-service discovery and other, more advanced analytics use cases.

"Our story [in engaging with customers] is how we can actually add value tomorrow. We [tell customers that we] can actually get you dashboards tomorrow," Coble said. "You're talking with [a customer prospect in healthcare] about building them a dashboard tomorrow and helping them to develop that expertise on their own, but that [dashboard] kind of becomes the tip of the spear. Customers almost always want to do more based on that experience."

Asif Hasan, co-founder with Yellowfin partner Quantiphi Inc., a Massachusetts-based "decision science" integrator, related a similar experience. He cited the case of Lynn Community Health, a small healthcare non-profit in Lynn, Mass., which contracted with his company to design and implement the equivalent of a BI system for its healthcare practice. Yellowfin's reporting, dashboard, and collaboration capabilities helped Quantiphi win the account, Hasan explained. They're now working with Lynn Community Health to develop predictive analytics and other advanced capabilities.

Yes, he concedes, this model does play to the needs of partners and resellers, and, yes, Yellowfin's model is partner- and reseller-centric. (At the Fenway Park event, director of product marketing John Ryan assured attendees that Yellowfin would rather sell through partners than sell directly.) However, Yellowfin's isn't a cynical land-and-expand model, Hasan reassured attendees. If anything, the fact that customers tend to expand their use of Yellowfin is a validation of its BI and analytical capabilities.

"For us to be able to offer innovation like this -- to be able to make it possible for a [non-profit] organization such as Lynn Community Health, to serve the community better -- that's just priceless," he argued. Ryan noted that Yellowfin's licensing terms also tend to be friendly for resellers and customers alike. This was especially helpful in designing and scaling a BI service for Lynn Community Health.

Kate Heffernan, director of decision support with Lynn Community Health, concurred. She says her organization selected Quantiphi and Yellowfin after a rigorous RFP process -- a process made all the more rigorous because grant money from private and government sources was involved.

Heffernan says Lynn Community Health's immediate needs were basic BI and reporting -- its Quantiphi-designed solution replaced an ad hoc arrangement of spreadsheets and paper-based health records -- but that she and her team decided to go with Quantiphi because they believed Yellowfin could scale to address their long-term advanced analytics needs.

"I started at Lynn [Community Health] a little over a year ago out of a grant we received to bring some kind of business intelligence solution to the health center so that we could better understand our patients and our patients' needs, as well as how much it costs to take care of them. When I arrived, I found that what we had [in terms of BI] was really disparate. Basically, we had our own internal Excel spreadsheet … with very basic metrics and a lot of information about the patients was actually fed to us … from the insurance companies that we generally deal with," she explained.

"The idea is for us to expand, hopefully in the next three months, and really leverage some of the functionality that the solution has to offer," Heffernan continued. "Right now, we just want to look at our data in charts and graphs, and to pull in [data from] multiple sources [in order] to do that. As we grow and get better with this, there's the mobile functionality and the predictive functionality. There's also the capacity to use [Yellowfin] as a more collaborative tool."

She says Lynn Community Health is pleased with its Quantiphi- and Yellowfin-based BI investment. "We've been using it for a few months now. It's still in the trial-and-figure-out phase, but we've been able to get it up and running very quickly, to start getting value out of it very quickly. We have nurse case managers accessing the system [and] running their dashboards," Heffernan continued.

"The first thing that our case manager saw when she saw the data [in context] was how much our patients were spending on home care. I think it was the third most expensive service that we were seeing in our data, so she's already started outreach on those homecare patients to try to reduce the need for those expenses, and that alone will be a return on investment."

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer with 20 years of experience. His writing has focused on business intelligence, data warehousing, and analytics for almost 15 years. Swoyer has an abiding interest in tech, but he’s particularly intrigued by the thorny people and process problems technology vendors never, ever want to talk about. You can contact him at [email protected].

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