Op Ed: Alex Kaluzny On What Every Business Should Know About Data Visualization

From The FieldCorporate travel generates tons of data for all sorts of purposes. Understanding and conveying the key points can be a struggle for travel management professionals. Egencia chief technology officer Alex Kaluzny explains why taking a different view of data can help tell stories more clearly, uncover hidden meaning and position travel managers as the trusted narrators — and heroes — of corporate programs.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what story is it telling? What’s the conflict? What’s the resolution? And who is the hero?

Storytelling is a key part of business today. If you are a travel manager working to enhance the corporate bottom line by cutting costs and improving efficiency, you must be the hero of the story. But the nature of the story has to emerge from the vast amount of data available to you.

Doctors and government officials in London got the story terribly wrong when citizens were dying of cholera in the 1850s. What does a cholera outbreak in 19th century London have in common with travel managers making their programs more efficient? Data visualization.

Scientist John Snow doubted the official story proclaimed at the time, that cholera was caused by airborne contamination. How could he persuade government bureaucrats they were wrong?

He built a map — a data visualization — of cholera cases. He saw that they clustered around a public water source and persuaded officials to test the water. They found the source of the outbreak and changed our understanding of epidemiology in the process. More than 150 years later, Snow is still heralded as a hero in the story of public health practice.

Data visualization continues to be a crucial storytelling tool in our modern fast-paced world. With an abundance of data, everyone can access the raw building blocks of insights in their own fields of endeavor, but you need the right tools. We’ve all sat through PowerPoint presentations populated with graphics that don’t really tell us anything.

Data is useless unless it tells a story that drives action, and driving action is about more than just having the data. The best stories engage us both intellectually and emotionally. We understand the characters involved and the stakes at risk. When we say that a picture is worth a thousand words, it’s shorthand for both the story’s building blocks and the emotional stakes. If I showed you a picture of a little girl wearing a red hood, you would immediately summon all the plot points and the life and death emotions of Little Red Riding Hood. You would do that without me explaining it to you.

Alex Kaluzny, Egencia
Egencia CTO Alex Kaluzny

Data analytics should be just as visually intuitive in your business.

One of the key problems in business storytelling is that most charts and graphs actually distract us from what data visualization is all about. Data visualization shines a light on data analytics. For travel managers, if your travel management company provides consolidated data, it can be used to discover opportunities that drive action. It is absolutely a step in the process toward that C-suite presentation but it’s not just a graphical tool. Management dashboards, customizable widgets and filters that provide different data viewpoints create insights long before you step into that conference room.

Data visualization tools must first enable the travel manager to discover an insight, to see a story worth telling and the plot points that will bring it to life. These are emotional aspects of an “aha” moment that spreadsheets and numbers alone were never designed to convey. As data proliferates in the global economy, spreadsheets and numbers will be less effective for generating business insights. Travel managers need platforms that provide the data to create insights as well as the data visualization for understanding and communicating them.

Travel managers deal with lots of different kinds of data from a variety of sources. Everything from ticket prices and hotel rates to traveler safety and security information can be sliced and diced a thousand different ways depending on the plot of your story. Data visualization lets you explore deeper and discover unexpected angles and twists, uncovering new areas of savings and optimization that might otherwise be missed among the jumble of numbers. This is the story climax when the audience realizes the real value that the travel manager delivers to the business.

The new generation of travel management tools must be as agile as the organizations they serve. How fast can I visualize data? Waiting for something to calculate overnight doesn’t work when you’re getting ready for an operations review with the C-suite or fighting to drop money to the bottom line. This time-to-insight factor requires an architectural capability in the travel platform coupled with a knowledge of what data matters most to the travel manager. Data must be quickly accessible and the platform itself has to be geared toward surfacing the kinds of insights relevant to business travel. That requires customization that more generic interfaces lack.

As data visualization tools become more available, the best will introduce a new wrinkle in the ease of use requirements: excitement and prediction. The best travel managers will be the ones that show the value that business travel is creating for their companies. That requires more than just a well-designed interface. It requires a deeper connection between the TMC and the customer. That connection inspires real excitement in playing with your data, asking new questions of the data and using predictive analytics to validate hypotheses about what’s really happening in the business.

It’s these capabilities that are moving the digital TMC to the next chapter, evolving into a true platform solution that simplifies and enhances every aspect of travel management. The platform era of travel management makes incredible amounts of data available, but it’s the data visualization tools that will drive this emotional investment in the stories to be told.

That ability to create excitement will cast the travel manager as the hero of the story.

• Recasting The Travel Manager’s Role
• ‘Team Value Quest’ Dares To Quantify The Merits Of Travel Management


Author: Alex Kaluzny

Alex Kaluzny, CTO at Egencia, is specialized in building high-performance technology platforms for global travel companies, for both leisure and corporate travel. At Egencia, he heads up worldwide technology and development with a mission to create game-changing web, mobile and customer service solutions to make business travel better. Based in Paris, France, Alex leads a team of over 500 engineers and IT specialists located in R&D centers in the United States, France and India. Prior to joining Egencia, he served as group vice president of technology at Chicago-based global online travel agency Orbitz Worldwide. Alex holds degrees in Computer Science from the University of Illinois and Business Administration from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Connect with him on LinkedIn.
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