Insurer Sees Visual Analytics as Must-Have

At XL Group, a global insurance and reinsurance company, analytics is as much a part of the business as underwriting and risk management.

Kimberly Holmes, XL Group
Kimberly Holmes, XL Group

In fact, analytics has been part of the company from the get-go, Kimberly Holmes, head of strategic analytics at XL, told me in a recent interview. The company, headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, launched in the mid 1980s with a new model for risk transfer, addressing a "big problem and disruption in the commercial casualty insurance space with a solution that has spanned the test of time."

Now, with the insurance industry at a crossroads, XL stands at the ready with an arsenal of advanced analytics tools. They're the result of work Holmes has overseen since joining the company two years ago, charged, she said, with the mandate of improving decision making at XL via the development of advanced analytical decision support tools.

"We've seen a major shift in the risk paradigm over the last few years: Risk is growing exponentially, and there are big changes in the information available, how customers operate, and technology. XL is responding by embracing advanced analytics."

Holmes' strategic analytics group has developed 12 multivariate predictive models as well as nontraditional analytics in areas where it doesn't have enough data to support a traditional multivariate predictive model solution, she described. Next up is enabling sophisticated and interactive data visualizations via SAS Visual Analytics.

Introduced last March, Visual Analytics is a next-generation analytics solution comprising an administrative tool for managing users, security, and data; an exploration tool for ad hoc data discovery and visualization; design capability for standard and advanced reporting and dashboards; and Mobile BI, for rendering the data visualizations natively on mobile platforms. These come together in what SAS calls "The Hub," which provides role-based, secure access for IT, business, and analytics professionals. Behind the scenes, Visual Analytics runs on the highly scalable SAS LASR Analytic Server, an in-memory analytics engine that uses Hadoop as local storage for fault tolerance. (See SAS Visual Analytics Provides Wow Factor for more details.)

When we talked last week, XL and SAS (this site's sponsor) were in the final stages of working out a hosting arrangement for Visual Analytics, Holmes said. Holmes said she decided using Visual Analytics in a hosted environment would be best given the hardware requirements and the expertise required to maintain the hardware and software.

"My hope is that we'll be up and running with it any day now. I really can't wait to get my hands on it," she said.

Holmes' expectations for how Visual Analytics will benefit XL are high. "Most people don't have mastery or even rudimentary understanding of statistics. Through the use of Visual Analytics, we can make the story in the data come to life before our eyes."

In its traditional management information environment, the data analytics can tell XL what happened but not the why. It can't go deep enough into the datasets to give the company the whole story, she explained:

With Visual Analytics, we're not going to be getting the abridged version, the CliffsNotes. We're going to be getting the whole story, and it's a big story, telling us the why. That's the most important thing. Knowing what happened is important but if you don't know why things happened, you don't know what to do to make things better going forward.

The benefits of Visual Analytics "will go straight to the bottom line," Holmes said.

Decision-making effectiveness determines success at XL, as it does at most other companies, Holmes noted. So if it can improve its decisions, it'll improve the bottom line. "How we improve our decisions is through more information and better analysis."

But implementing that is harder than developing it, added Holmes, noting the difficulties in getting people to change their behavior. Visual Analytics will help XL get to change management tenet: Speak to the heart, she said. "And it will help us ask new questions that we didn't ask before. We would not get the insights from the data if we did not have these questions. This will improve how we analyze risk and how we implement the findings and the tools we develop."

Do you think your company could benefit from the use of a tool like SAS Visual Analytics? Share your thoughts below.

Beth Schultz, Editor in Chief

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor.  Most recently, she brought her expertise to bear writing thought-provoking editorial and marketing materials on a variety of technology topics for leading IT publications and industry players.  Previously, she oversaw multimedia content development, writing and editing for special feature packages at Network World. In particular, she focused on advanced IT technology and its impact on business users and in so doing became a thought leader on the revolutionary changes remaking the corporate datacenter and enterprise IT architecture. Beth has a keen ability to identify business and technology trends, developing expertise through in-depth analysis and early adopter case studies. Over the years, she has earned more than a dozen national and regional editorial excellence awards for special issues from American Business Media, American Society of Business Press Editors,, and others.

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  • 1/15/2013 2:49:38 PM

If I were CEO of an insurance company, I'd be all over Big Data. Sure, the carrots are significant, but what about preventing fraud? The opportunity here is huge, as I write in Too Big to Ignore.

XL Visual Analytics
  • 1/15/2013 3:08:39 PM
1 saves


You write about the coolest stuff.  I want to see more analytics stuff here.  I would love to meet the people who are building these models and learn from them . Keep it up.  My neighbor works for XL so I am going to touch base with him.

I applaud Kim Holmes for taking on challenging work, because I see a lot of 90s type models still being applied to 2013 risks.




Re: XL Visual Analytics
  • 1/15/2013 3:17:58 PM

Hi Brian, thanks -- and I'm glad you're enjoying the content. It sounds like you might be involved in the insurance industry as well, when you write "I see a lot of 90s type models still being applied to 2013 risks" or are you talking outside of the insurance field? Would visual analytics benefit you and your company?

sizeable Information
  • 1/15/2013 7:53:59 PM

Visual tools certainly bring data as close to being interactive as possible. Its bad enough that often data can be overwhelming and confusing, but when served in the right presentation format, the negatives of overload are certainly mitigated. Especially when it comes to the more complex subjects, as we browse through statistics, its often easier to stop and look closer when data is structured in graphics

Re: sizeable Information
  • 1/15/2013 8:07:58 PM

Data visualization helps to better communicate complex statistical insights to co-workers.   And the better those insights are communicated, the more it encourages others to use analytics in business planning and decision making. 

Also, sometimes insurance companies will share these insights with consumers.  For example, a former professor of mine called her insurance company to find out which type of car had was the least likely to get broken into in her school parking lot.  And that was the car she chose to buy for work purposes. 

Re: XL Visual Analytics
  • 1/15/2013 10:43:38 PM

@Beth, I like the post and am glad to see that some folks in the insurance industry are looking forward at their risks and not in the proverbial "rear-view mirror" like in traditional actuarial science. My question is: Who makes up the target audience for these visual analytics? In-house underwriters? XL's clients?

Re: XL Visual Analytics
  • 1/16/2013 8:07:21 AM

Hi Broadway. My understanding is that the strategic analytics team will be sitting down at the Visual Analytics dashboard and sharing insight pulled from it with internal business users. 

Re: sizeable Information
  • 1/16/2013 8:19:52 AM

Absolutely! Have you had the chance to work on or see a demo of data visualizations of this sort?

Re: XL Visual Analytics
  • 1/16/2013 10:36:30 PM

Hi @Beth, thanks for the explanation. I'd also be interested to hear if XL plans to use visual analytics to eventually tell the story of XL's risk to their reinsurers.

Re: XL Visual Analytics
  • 1/17/2013 9:30:18 AM

SAS makes a number of key points about this product:

  • SAS Visual Analytics, the newest member of the SAS High-Performance Analytics family, applies the power of SAS to massive amounts of data
  • Businesses can visually explore data based on any variety of measures, quickly and easily
  • Fresh insights can be shared widely either through the internet or iPads
  • SAS High-Performance Analytics offerings will continue to grow, adding innovative solutions for horizontal and vertical industry problems

How do you think these would benefit your operation?

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