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Painting a picture with data

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Visual data analytics is a lot like painting a picture. The image might not look like much in the beginning, but after time a picture starts to take shape and you’re left with something that speaks louder than words, writes GREATERMAN NKOMO of SAS.

Visual communication is nothing new. Our ancestors used paintings and carvings to make sense of their environment, and it seems they were on to something – research has found that 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual, and that visuals are processed 60 000 times faster in the brain than text.

Much like cave dwellers back in the day, today’s businesses are also trying to make sense of the data-driven world they operate in. But there’s a bigger picture involved. If they want to increase their competitiveness, it’s not enough just to understand the environment; the real value lies in the ability to use data to improve decision-making and performance, predict the future and mitigate risk.

Yet businesses still struggle to cope with the exponentially increasing volumes of data generated internally and externally by clients and partners. They are still looking for more efficient ways to store and retrieve data rather than focusing on the value hidden in that data. Traditional architectures are also not designed to deliver the fast analytical processing needed for rapid insights, a problem that is worsened by the fact that data is still stored in silos in many organisations, providing a fragmented view of the business and any potential opportunities or risks.

Fostering a culture of analytics

Businesses can no longer afford to operate this way – and they don’t have to. Modern visual analytics tools provide a complete platform for analytics visualisation, enabling businesses to identify patterns and relationships in data that were not initially evident. Drag-and-drop functionality and automatic visualisation puts business intelligence into the hands of even the most statistic-averse team member, allowing anyone to visually explore data without having to call on the data scientist or IT department.

This creates a decision-making culture within organisations, equipping people with the tools they need to gain insight into complex problems in order to make well-informed, business-changing decisions.

Follow the data breadcrumbs

Just as artists experiment with different techniques and colour combinations to produce different effects, so can people play around with data to uncover the unexpected. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to visual analytics. Bring whatever data you have – your oils, pastels and acrylic paint, if you will – integrate it with social media and other web data, and see what happens. The data doesn’t have to make sense at first – the beauty of visual analytics software is that everything is automatic – you only need to follow the data’s lead and let it paint its own picture. Automated analytics makes value extraction easy. In-memory processing makes it fast. Businesses can explore billions of rows of data, without the need to subset or sample it, to identify new patterns, explore hidden relationships, test hypotheses in seconds, and share those insights with the right people, at the right time, in a format that they can understand, whether that’s on a desktop or mobile device. These reports enable collaborative, engaging discussions that can drive deeper insights – and better decisions.

Don’t know why you’re losing customers? Analytics can show you where the churn is happening and you may be surprised to know that it has something to do with the service they get from your call centre, for example. How do you know this? By analysing the sentiment of what people are saying about your business on social media and comments on other online platforms, which can be conveniently displayed in a format that the decision makers understand. By digging deeper, you may find that it’s not the call centre staff that are providing the bad service, but perhaps dropped calls and poor quality lines due to ageing infrastructure. The knee-jerk response might have been to retrain your call centre staff rather than replace your equipment; through scenario planning and predictive analytics, you can save thousands in lost time and money.

Ultimately, everyone, in any role, is a decision-maker. Having tools that present data in a way that is visual, easy to understand, fosters collaboration and supports mobility enables savvy businesses to recognise trends and use them as competitive differentiators. Visual data analytics might be messy at first, but with a bit of creativity and exploration, you could be left with a masterpiece that’s worth more than any amount of money could buy.

* Greaterman Nkomo, Account Executive, Visual Analytics, SAS

* Follow Gadget on Twitter on @GadgetZA

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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