A Digital Transformation – From the Printing Press to Modern Data Reporting

Imagine producing, marketing and selling a product that has only a four-hour shelf life! After four hours, your product is no longer of much value or relevance to your primary consumer. After eight hours, you would be lucky to sell any of the day’s remaining stock. Within 24 hours, nobody is going to buy it; you have to start fresh the next morning. There is such a product line being produced, sold and consumed to millions of people around the world every day. And it’s probably more common than you think.

It’s the daily newspaper.

With such a tight production schedule, news printers have always been under the gun to be able to take the latest news stories and turn them into a finished printed product quickly. Mechanization and automation have pretty much made the production of the modern daily paper a non-event, but it has not always been that way.

150 years ago, the typesetter (someone who set your words, or ‘type’, into a printing press) was the key to getting your printed paper mass produced. With typesetters working faster than your competitors, you could get your product, your story, out to your consumers faster, gaining market share. However, it was still very much a manual process. In the late 1800s the stage was set for a faster method of setting type. One such machine, the Paige Compositor, was as big as a mini-van and had about 15,000 moving parts. (Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the failed invention, leading to his financial ruin.) On a more personal scale and at the modern end of the spectrum, we think nothing of sending our finished work, perhaps the big annual report, off to the color printer or ‘office machine’, or upload it to a local printing vendor who will print, collate and bind the whole job for us in a fraction of the time it would take a typesetter to layout even the first page!

So why am I telling you all this? It’s certainly not for a history lesson. The point is that the printed news industry went through a transformation from nothing (monks with quill pens), to ‘mechanization’ (Gutenberg’s printing press), to ‘automation and finally to ‘digitalization.’ And, they had to do so as the news consumer evolved from wanting their printed subscription on a monthly basis, down to the weekly, to the daily and even to the ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ editions. Remember, after four hours, the product is going stale and just about useless. (We could debate whether the faster technologies was what drove news consumers to want information faster, or if the needs of the consumer inspired the advancements in technology, but we won’t.)

Data and reporting has followed the same phases of transformation, albeit not along a much accelerated time span. The modern data consumer is no longer satisfied with having to request a green-bar, tractor fed report from the mainframe, then wait overnight for the ‘job’ to get scheduled and run. They’re not even satisfied with receiving a morning email report with yesterday’s data, or even being able to get the latest analytics report from the server farm on demand. No, they want it now, they want it in hand (smart phones), and they want it concise and relevant. To satisfy this market, products are popping up that fill this need in today’s data reporting market. Products like Microsoft’s Power BI can deliver data quickly and efficiently and in the mobile format demanded due to the industry’s transformation to digital processing. Technologies in Microsoft’s Azure cloud services such as Stream Analytics, coupled with Big Data processing, Machine Learning and Event Hubs have the capabilities to push data in real time to Power BI. I’ll never forget the feeling of elation I had upon completing a simple real-time Azure solution that streamed data every few seconds from a portable temperature sensor in my hand to a Power BI Dashboard. It must have been something like Johannes Gutenberg felt after that first page rolled off his printing press.

Gutenberg and Clemens would be amazed at the printing technology available today to the everyday consumer, yet we seem to take it for granted. Having gone through some of the transformation phases with regard to information delivery myself (yes, I do in fact recall 11×17 green-bar tractor-fed reports) I tend to be amazed at what technologies are being developed these days. Eighteen months ago (an eon in technology life) the Apple watch and Power BI teamed up to deliver KPI’s right on the watch! What will we have in another eighteen months? I can’t wait to find out.

About Todd: Todd Chittenden started his programming and reporting career with industrial maintenance applications in the late 1990’s. When SQL Server 2005 was introduced, he quickly became certified in Microsoft’s latest RDBMS technology and has added certifications over the years. He currently holds an MCSE in Business Intelligence. He has applied his knowledge of relational databases, data warehouses, business intelligence and analytics to a variety of projects for BlumShapiro since 2011. 

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