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IBM Watson Data Analysis Service Revealed

IBM Watson Analytics cloud service aims to simplify data-driven decision making. Can cognitive computing get around decades-old complications?

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IBM on Tuesday announced the upcoming release of a cloud-based Watson Analytics service that promises to streamline and simplify the data-analysis process for untrained business users.

Business people want to make data-driven decisions, but between the complexities of data acquisition and data cleansing, on the one hand, and the profusion of data-analysis and data-visualization methods on the other, it's just way too hard for many, according to IBM. Watson Analytics is aimed at eliminating these barriers.

[Want more on data analysis? Read Visual Data Discovery: 4 Storytelling Approaches Compared.]

Watson cognitive computing technology provides a natural-language-savvy interface to what's described as an end-to-end data-analysis workflow. Behind the scenes, IBM is employing multiple technologies from its vast data-management and analytics portfolio:

  • InfoSphere Data Refinery services are used to assess data sources and automatically suggest data corrections that users can accept or decline.
  • Catalyst Engine technologies rooted in IBM SPSS analytics automatically find correlations between data sets and relevant trends in data, helping business users to understand the information and select predictive analyses.
  • Project Neo technologies from IBM Labs automatically suggest appropriate data visualizations to make sense of the data.
  • IBM Concert technologies evolved out of TM1 performance-management software supports collaborative decision making around visualizations and dashboards.

Watson Analytics is a cloud-based service, so there's nothing to download. "You start by uploading files, and then you either explore the data, type in specific questions, or apply use-case story templates we're creating for common sales, marketing, HR, and operational scenarios," said Eric Sall, IBM's VP of marketing, Business Analytics, in an interview with InformationWeek.

The Watson Analytics service is not confined to specific types of problems, nor does it require the kind of training often associated with Watson deployments, according to Sall. The service will start with free use for individuals who will have access to all data-refining, predictive, visual-analysis, and collaborative capabilities. Premium users will be able to analyze higher volumes of data and more data sources, including live links to sources such as data warehouses and cloud sources.

"Using the freemium model is a very aggressive move on our part, but we think we have something very special here that once you use it, you'll get a real feel for the kinds of things it can do for you," Sall said.

The home page of IBM's Watson Analytics cloud-based service.
The home page of IBM's Watson Analytics cloud-based service.

The new service will soon enter a public beta period, so it has yet to be tested in real-world scenarios. But Watson Analytics was demonstrated in a variety of analysis scenarios at an event in New York on Tuesday. "Story" starting points shown included improving e-commerce performance, optimizing marketing campaigns, retaining employees, predicting retail purchases by segment, and finding patterns in sales wins and losses, among others.  

Contrasting the service with popular tools like Tableau Software, IBM executive Bob Picciano, senior VP, Information and Analytics, stressed that the Watson Analytics is about analysis, not just data visualization.

"Visualization is a bit like a hollow M&M," Picciano said. "You get the view on the outside, but what's missing is the analysis and the interpretation of the data."   

The details on the cost of the service and the limits and features of the free and premium services have yet to be worked out. For now there's no mobile-native app, but will Watson Analytics show up on Apple devices as part of the recently announced IBM-Apple alliance?

"It would be natural to go down [the mobile apps] path because we're trying to serve business users and they're everywhere, whether that's at their desk or on their mobile device." Sall said. "This is a tool that people can use on a daily basis, and if they do, they'll make every decision they'll make better."

Watson Analytics will be available for beta test users within 30 days, and the freemium service will be available "to all IBM business clients" beginning in November, according to a company statement.

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Doug Henschen is Executive Editor of InformationWeek, where he covers the intersection of enterprise applications with information management, business intelligence, big data and analytics. He previously served as editor in chief of Intelligent Enterprise, editor in chief of ... View Full Bio

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D. Henschen
D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
9/16/2014 | 11:49:24 AM
Watson out of the walled garden
Every Watson deployment I've covered thus far has been, essentially, a pilot-like deployment in a training phase with lots of care and feeding from IBM and carefully selected partner customers. The partners usually also have a vested stake in success. Once Watson Analytics goes live within one month, we'll finally see the vast public -- or at least the vast IBM customer base -- banging on this technology and trying to get smart results out of it.

Although "Watson" is on the outside wrapper, most of the data-management and data-analysis technology here really isn't part of the Watson Cognitive Computing technology. I take the natural-language-processing interface to be the main contribution from Watson. The main giveaway here is that training is not required, although some of that training is built into the "story" templates for specific types of analysis.
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