City of Charlotte Business Intelligence Competition Results in Faster, Smarter Analytics

Tableau: How did you come up with the idea of a business intelligence Olympiad?
Jim Raper, Data Manager: We began using Tableau back in 2005 and found it enabled our users to be more efficient. But convincing the rest of the departments in the city to try it was a problem. My assistant, Doris Phillips, came up with the idea to have an Olympiad to let all the analysts compete using Tableau.

Tableau: Sounds fun! What happened this year at the competition?
Jim: We used the Titanic passenger list as the data set in our 2008 Olympics. This year, our BI community said, let's use real business problems. So we tasked all teams to use their own data and create a dashboard that reflected one of their key business metrics, but also use best practices as far as data visualization goes.

Once the analysts got the tool in their hands, they were promoters of it. And when their managers saw that they could get something faster, they were more willing to buy Tableau.

Tableau: Word is you added some “pressure” at the last minute.
Jim: To throw just a little wrinkle and put a little pressure on our analysts, a day before the competition, our city manager met with them and said, "We have a category 3 hurricane headed to Charlotte; because of the one that hit the Gulf a couple of days ago, all the oil refineries are shut down; gas prices are spiking by over $2 a gallon, and by the way, there was a bioterrorism attack against the Charlotte water system and all the management layer is gone.” Then we gave them 24 hours to adjust their dashboards and show us how the events would affect business.

Tableau: What do people learn through this competition?
Jim: A competition and training against metrics improves the capability of the analyst. And the added pressure of a deadline and something coming out of left field stretches them. They learn what management wants to see and also what are the best data visualization practices from the technical side.

Tableau: Who uses Tableau and what sort of best practices do they use?
Jim: We have over 40 different analysts within the city that have Tableau Professional on their desktop; an equal number use Tableau Server. And we’ve embedded BI and analytics further into the business—with about two-thirds of our departments using Tableau. The businesses are finding real value in using good BI tools and most importantly, using the best practice of getting raw data into actionable business intelligence to visually present to a manager's eye.

What we've seen from the departments that have adopted Tableau is that their analysts are able to work faster and smarter. They have more time to discover what they don’t know in a data set instead of just focusing on producing a report. And so the managers are getting a richer blend of data.

Tableau: What is the City’s data environment like?
Jim: Charlotte is not much different than any commercial business or government entity. We have data in Oracle databases, in SQL databases, data in Access databases, lots and lots of Excel spreadsheets, and flat files. Our raw data is coming in multiple formats from multiple sources. It’s common to pull data from multiple sources, as well as our data warehouse and blend it on a daily basis.

Tableau: What’s the benefit of being able to blend all that data?
Jim: The questions keep coming and the time frame to answers gets shorter. We've seen evidence of over a 20-time improvement in time from raw data to finished product. A 20-fold increase in productivity is something that all managers would like to see from their analysts. And management Finds it a little easier to visualize it with a dashboard vs. thumbing through pages of Excel spreadsheets.

Tableau: And what was the result of the 2012 Business Intelligence Olympiad?
Jim: When you have 10 teams competing and they're looking at real business problems, they come up with very different solutions. Afterwards, talking with each other as a community, we get a lot of sharing across the various business groups, and that's helping to break down silos. It's also helping to train our analysts up. The level of expertise of our analysts in 2012 is a whole lot better than it was in 2008.