Posted by Adam Jacobs
October 16, 2017
I attended the Power BI world tour at the Microsoft Canada head office in Mississauga, and came away with an appreciation of how much growth and excitement there is surrounding this fantastic visualization and data wrangling tool.
Firstly, the variety (and number) or people using Power BI is quite startling. There were hundreds of people at the campus, with many sessions literally standing room only. I made a point of meeting as many people as possible at the event, and encountered analysts, developers and management from a huge range of industries. Construction, health care, not-for-profits, consulting, oil and gas, local government and manufacturing were all well represented; even areas that are less associated with data and quantitative analysis, such as human resources and media production, were in evidence.
What’s so attractive about the current Power BI offering? Again, I tried to ask as many people as possible why they had selected Power BI; there are dozens if not hundreds of business intelligence/dashboarding/data visualization tools available, and Microsoft is a relatively recent entrant into the market (Power BI was released July 2015). Repeatedly I heard three common responses:
The ease of integration with an existing Microsoft stack. The vast majority of people already several core Microsoft products: Office 365, SQL Server, Reporting Services, Analysis Services, Dynamics, Sharepoint, Azure and Bing Maps. Power BI is included in Office, plays nicely with SSRS in the new Report Server, and uses Dynamics and Azure as data sources. Additionally, the formula language of PowerBI, DAX, is derived from SQL Server Analysis Services, giving Microsoft veterans a head start in developing their report and dashboards.
The low cost of implementation. The inclusion of Power BI in Office 365 and the aggressive pricing for Power BI appealed to many users. A big obstacle to adopting modern data visualization software is the cost; Microsoft has managed to introduce many users with a free version of Power BI, and turn them into advocates in their organization for better BI tools.
The extensibility and flexibility of Power BI. The concept of “custom visuals” allows for almost any niche use case to be implemented in Power BI. Industry-specific charts that are very difficult to replicate in other BI software (or Excel) can be easily addressed with Power BI custom visuals, e.g. the Sankey diagram for energy, or the funnel chart for sales.
Interestingly, none of this is what makes Power BI most attractive to me. Many of my BI consulting projects revolve around maps and spatial data; these are impossible to address in Excel, and limited in some other BI tools. Microsoft has two unique features that put them ahead of the BI competition. One is the availability of Bing Maps in Power BI. Often the most time-consuming part of mapping projects is geocoding, the process of assigning exact points to addresses. Thanks to the bing maps API, PowerBI will do that for you – serve it a list of addresses, and it will return dots on a map.
Secondly, Microsoft has a partnership with ESRI, by far the leading provider of GIS and mapping software in the world. The new ESRI maps visual is a huge leap that allows for heat maps, a gigantic library of free base layers and satellite imagery, without needing to connect to any servers or use any third-party tools. Moreover, all of this hints at the potential of a full-fledged mapping tool in the near future.
Of course, Excel is still the most important tool for analysts, and Microsoft has tightened the connection between Power BI and Excel in several ways. For example, with the Power BI Publisher add-in for excel, you can design your charts in Excel and then “pin” them to an existing Power BI dashboard instead of having to re-design them. You can also connect directly to your Power BI data model in Excel, and build our beloved PivotTables off the linked Power BI tables.
The Microsoft staff, MVPs and conference panelists walked us through the innards of Power BI: beginner and advanced DAX formulas, scripting your data cleaning with Power Query, and setting up joins and data modeling inside the program. We saw case studies of users implementing Power BI and connecting it with other Microsoft offerings like Azure Machine Learning; one group managed to achieve this entirely in the browser, as their IT environment was so locked down that they simply could not install a single piece of software!
If you’d like help or want to know more about Power BI, you can: