Visualizing results

In-Q-Tel Web site

Officials at a Cambridge, Mass.-based company hope their visualization technology will help law enforcement and intelligence workers access and merge data from a variety of sources and quickly analyze it for patterns and trends.

Employees at agencies responsible for the safety of the country — namely the Homeland Security Department, FBI, CIA and other intelligence organizations — deal with mountains of data that come in many forms, such as e-mail messages, documents and spreadsheets.

Spotfire Inc. develops technology that takes data in structured form, such as spreadsheets, and unstructured form, such as documents, and presents it to users graphically.

The company recently received an undisclosed equity investment from In-Q-Tel, the CIA's private venture-capital enterprise designed to locate and invest in companies working on technology that could serve national security interests. The deal also involves a partnership between In-Q-Tel and Spotfire to develop technological enhancements that could better serve the government, said Chris Ahlberg, Spotfire's chief executive officer.

Spotfire began doing business in the pharmaceutical industry, then expanded into the oil and gas industries, and only recently entered the government market, he said.

"We look for information-intensive industries that have a high variability in the data they receive," Ahlberg said. "The technology came out of studies in human-to-

computer interactions. The premise was that a graphical user interface is effective, but it wasn't being applied to databases."

The company's technology generates a visual environment from the data by presenting to users with a graph or chart with data points plotted to represent various pieces of data in the original document. "It's like a video game for databases," Ahlberg said. "A database can contain thousands upon thousands of rows and columns. How are you supposed to be able to distinguish a trend or pattern from that? We present it to a user in such a way that there is an 'a-ha,' or eureka, moment."

In-Q-Tel officials traditionally look to invest in start-up companies, but Jonathan Joseph, an associate in In-Q-Tel's venture capital group, said the Spotfire deal was compelling because the same issue that affects industry similarly affects the government market — information overload.

"The amount of data the government receives has become a tremendous problem," Joseph said.

Government data is presented in just as many ways as it is in the commercial space, he said. Documents, reports and memorandums are just a few of the unstructured collections of data that can have potentially valuable information. Culling what's valuable and determining how it relates is where Spotfire's technology could produce results.

Dan Vesset, research director for business intelligence at market research firm IDC, said Spotfire's value to the commercial world is a more efficient use of data. This could have far-reaching applications in defense and intelligence, where the understanding and interpretation of data can save lives.

"Spotfire's technology could very easily be used by the intelligence community to handle large amounts of data from multiple sources," Vesset said.

He added that an aspect of Spotfire's tool that could provide unique benefits to intelligence professionals involves collaborative decision-making and managing workflow.

"For example, if an experienced intell analyst has a way of doing things — analyzing data — that's proven to be very effective, the tool can capture that and publish it to the rest of the organization as an internal best practice," he said. "In intelligence, it can be very valuable to have prebuilt mini-applications like that for younger analysts."

NEXT STORY: How tools find patterns in flight

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