BI Survey 2017

Once again it’s time to complete the BI Survey and take part in the largest annual survey of BI users. By taking part you get the chance to win some Amazon gift vouchers, and by promoting it here I get a free copy of the results which always provides some very interesting insights and will be the basis for a blog post this autumn. I wonder what people will say about Power BI this year?

Click here to fill out the survey, which should only take 20 minutes.

BI Survey 16

It’s that time of year again, so if you’ve got a few moments to spare here’s the link to take part in the BI Survey 16:

https://digiumenterprise.com/answer/?link=2908-SE68TH8Z

The BI Survey is the world’s largest survey of BI users and provides a fascinating insight into what’s really going on in the world of BI, as opposed to what the journalists and analysts are hyping.

In return for promoting it here, I get a free copy of the results and permission to blog about them. I’m particularly looking forward to finding out what it says about Power BI this year: just about all of the problems with the Excel/Power-add-ins combination identified in last year’s survey (data volume problems with 32-bit Excel, no real mobile story, the SharePoint dependency, confusion about what each of the add-ins does) have now been addressed with the new Power BI strategy, and I’m seeing a lot of customers starting projects with it.

Bing Pulse

A recent post on the Bing blog alerted me to a Microsoft service called Bing Pulse that I hadn’t heard about before. It’s a way of collecting and analysing audience feedback in real time during events like TV programmes, sporting events and speeches; the videos at http://pulse.bing.com/how-it-works/ give you a lot of detail on how it works.

It’s free to use until the end of January 2015 while it’s in beta; after that it looks like it will cost between $200 and $1000 per event. Some of the features mentioned as coming soon here suggest that you’ll be able to download the data it generates into your own BI tools, so I guess it would be possible to consume it in Power BI.

Measuring audience feedback like this is nothing new. I guess one reason why I found this service so interesting is that about six months ago I read something about the Hopkins Televoting Machine, developed in the 1940s to test audience reactions during movie screenings (you can read a bit about it here and here) – it’s amazing how similar it is to Bing Pulse. You may be also be interested in reading what Marshall McLuhan thought of this kind of thing back in 1947…

Maybe PASS should use Bing Pulse at next year’s Summit during the keynotes?

BI Survey 14

It’s that time of year again: the BI Survey, the world’s biggest annual survey of BI users, is looking for your feedback. If you use any Microsoft BI tools they want to know what you think of them – and that applies to you too, Power Pivot/Power Query/Power View/Power BI fans!

Here’s the link to use:

https://digiumenterprise.com/answer/?link=1905-6T9AM9S9

If you take the survey you’ll get a summary of the results and a chance to win some Amazon gift vouchers. For promoting the survey here I get to blog in detail about the results when they come out, and the results are always interesting. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing what people will say about Power BI.

Building A Simple BI Dashboard With Visio 2013 And Visio Services

Let me start this post by saying that I am a long way away from being a Visio expert – I’ve used Visio, of course, to create diagrams and I’ve also played with its BI capabilities in the past, but nothing more than that. A recent post on the Visio team blog reminded me about Visio’s BI capabilities and Jen Underwood then mentioned that Visio 2013 has some new functionality for BI, so I thought I’d check it out in more detail and blog about what I found. I’ve never seen Visio used to build dashboards or reports in the real world, but a quick search shows that the Visio pros out there have been doing this for years, so maybe it’s time us BI folks learned a few tricks from them? Visio 2013 is by no means a perfect tool for BI but I was pleasantly surprised at what it can do: you can create data-linked diagrams/dashboards in Visio on the desktop very easily, and then publish them to Visio Services in Sharepoint where they can be viewed in the browser and where the data can be refreshed.

First of all, the PowerPoint deck here is a good place to start to learn about Visio and Visio Services 2013 dashboards, as is the Visio team blog and Chris Hopkins’ blog. There’s also a walkthrough of how to link data to shapes here, and a lot of other good posts out there on creating charts and graphs in Visio such as this one.

Here’s what I did. To start, I created a few tables with data in in Excel to act as a data source, then published the workbook up to Excel Services in Sharepoint Online (I have an Office 365 E4 subscription). The data looked like this:

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I then opened up Visio 2013, connected to the workbook in Excel Services and imported the data from these two tables. With that done, I was able to select a shape, and then drag a row of data from the External Data pane onto the sheet, which gave me a data-linked shape. It was then fairly easy to configure the data graphic associated with each shape – for example, in the diagram below, I selected a City shape, then dragged the row containing sales for London onto the sheet, which gave me a City with the data for London linked to it, and next to the City shape I had an associated data graphic which I configured as a Data Bar of type Multi-bar Graph.

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The text next to the frowning face is also linked to data from Excel. I could then publish this to Sharepoint Online, and view the diagram in the browser just by opening it from the document library:

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All very straightforward. In Visio Services you can add comments, and also refresh the data. Data can be refreshed manually or on a schedule; I used Excel Services data in this demo because in Office 365 only Excel Services and Sharepoint List data sources can be refreshed but the story is much better in on-prem Sharepoint (the PowerPoint deck I linked to above has all the details). Weirdly, I found that if I modified my Excel data source in the Excel Web App it took a few minutes for the new data to come through in Visio even with me clicking Refresh, although it did eventually.

Obviously this is a very basic (and badly designed) dashboard that works within the limitations of Visio and Visio Services, and if you want to learn how to do this properly I suggest you check out the links above. But there are two important questions that now need to be answered:

Why, as a BI pro, would I want to create a dashboard in Visio rather than, say, Excel or Power View?

I suspect Visio isn’t used more widely in MS BI circles is 20% down to ignorance of what it can do, 30% the cost of licensing and the Sharepoint dependency, and 50% the fact that there are only a limited number of scenarios where it is the right tool to use. So when would you actually want to use it? The risk of using Visio is that you end up with a visually appealing infographic that is actually very bad at conveying the information you want to convey, the kind of thing Stephen Few is complaining about here. You’d probably only want to use it if the nature of the diagram contributed to your understanding of the data. For example if you wanted to look at which seats were filled more frequently than others in a theatre or an aeroplane, it might be useful to have a diagram showing the seat layout and colour the seats that get filled. I guess these scenarios are very similar to the kind of scenarios where it makes sense to plot geographical data on a map.

What functionality is Visio missing for it to be a serious BI tool?

Quite a lot. Leaving aside PivotDiagrams, there is no proper support for SSAS or PowerPivot for data linking and that’s a big problem in these days of self-service BI. I also don’t link the way you have to import data into Visio before it can be used: I’d want to be able to select the data I want using a PivotTable-like interface (generating MDX or DAX queries) and then bind it to shape, so that I could slice and filter my data inside Visio without having to keep on importing it; I imagine being very similar to Power View today, but where you could drag data-driven shapes onto a canvas instead of tables and graphs. Maybe Power View and Visio need to get together and have children?

 

I don’t want to finish this post on a critical note, though, because I’ve had a lot of fun learning more about Visio and its BI capabilities, and I hope to use it on a project soon. Now that Sharepoint and especially Office 365 are being pushed so heavily for BI (and being used more widely), maybe we’ll see a lot more of Visio dashboards?

SSAS on Windows Azure Virtual Machines

You may have already seen the announcement about Windows Azure Virtual Machines today; what isn’t immediately clear (thanks to Teo Lachev for the link) is that Analysis Services 2012 Multidimensional and Reporting Services are installed on the new SQL Server images. For more details, see:
http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/jj992719.aspx

SSAS 2012 Tabular is also supported but not initially installed.

LightSwitch and Self-Service BI

Visual Studio LightSwitch has been on my list of Things To Check Out When I Have Time for a while now; my upcoming session on the uses of OData feeds for BI at the PASS BA Conference (which will be a lot more exciting than it sounds – lots of cool demos – please come!) has forced me to sit down and take a proper look at it. I have to say I’ve been very impressed with it. It makes it very, very easy for people with limited coding skills like me to create data-driven line-of-business applications, the kind that are traditionally built with Access. Check out Beth Massi’s excellent series of blog posts for a good introduction to how it works.

How does LightSwitch relate to self-service BI though? The key thing here is that aside from its application-building functionality, LightSwitch 2012 automatically publishes all the data you pull into it as OData feeds; it also allows you to create parameterisable queries on that data, which are also automatically published as OData. Moreover, you can publish a LightSwitch app that does only this – it has no UI, it just acts as an OData service.

This is important for self-service BI in two ways:

  • First of all, when you’re a developer building an app and need to provide some kind of reporting functionality, letting your end users connect direct to the underlying database can cause all kinds of problems. For example, if you have application level security, this will be bypassed if all reporting is done from the underlying database; it makes much more sense for the reporting data to come from the app itself, and LightSwitch of course does this out of the box with its OData feeds. I came across a great post by Paul van Bladel the other day that sums up these arguments much better than I ever could, so I suggest you check it out.
  • Secondly, as a BI Pro setting up a self-service BI environment, you have to solve the problem of managing the supply of data to your end users. For example, you have a PowerPivot user that needs sales data aggregated to the day level, but only for the most recent week, plus a few other dimension tables to with it, but who can’t write the necessary SQL themselves. You could write the SQL for them but once that SQL is embedded in PowerPivot it becomes very difficult to maintain – you would want to keep as much of the complexity out of PowerPivot as possible.  You could set up something in the source database – maybe a series of views – that acts as a data supply layer for your end users. But what if you don’t have sufficient permissions on the source database to go in and create the objects you need? What if your source data isn’t actually in a database, but consists of other data feeds (not very likely today, I concede, but it might be in the future)? What if you’re leaving the project and need to set up a data supply layer that can be administered by some only-slightly-more-technical-than-the-rest power user? LightSwitch has an important role to play here too I think: it makes it very extremely easy to create feeds for specific reporting scenarios, and to apply security to those feeds, without any specialist database, .NET coding or SQL knowledge.

These are just thoughts at this stage – as I said, I’m going to do some demos of this in my session at the PASS BA Conference, and I’ll turn these demos into blog posts after that. I haven’t used LightSwitch as a data provisioning layer in the real world, and if I ever do I’m sure that will spur me into writing about it too. In the meantime, I’d be interested in hearing your feedback on this…