The Evolution of Power BI
By Rodney Guzman, CEO/Co-Founder/Owner at InterKnowlogy
Over the past few years, we have earned more than 50% of our revenue from building custom data visualization solutions. A fair question is why would anyone spend the money to do this? There are so many great off-the-shelf data visualization products out there that is seems a little silly to “re-invent the wheel”. Is it not possible to create dashboards and charts with one of these products to deliver the solution our customers need? Sometimes we can. However, there are many edge cases when these products have fallen down. Our customers sometimes have specific needs that no off-the-shelf solution can provide. They often build their own customized charts that everyone in their organization has adopted. These charts are tuned to their exact needs, and no one has to stare at it and try to understand what it is telling them. It is just obvious. We all love charts like this and hate the ones we need to digest before getting the point of the chart in the first place. It is this type of thinking that motivates a company to build unique solutions that do not use off-the-shelf analytics products.
How we go about creating a high-end, finely tuned data visualization solution is different today than just a year ago. A great case study is our work with CNN on the Magic Wall built in 2014. This is a XAML-based solution with integrated DirectX controls for mapping. CNN had very specific needs for up-time, customized data visualizations, touch interactions, telestrations, and responsiveness. The Magic Wall needs to be resilient to network conditions as well as handling massive amounts of constantly flowing, “real-time” analytics. We have built a number of high-end data visualization solutions of this scale that we cannot share due to NDA’s. All of them are finely tuned to the specific needs of our customers which they could not achieve with any off-the-shelf analytics and reporting platforms.
Another example of this type of solution was something we started two years ago. Our focus was to build an analytics platform designed for presidential campaigns. We were asked to determine if Power BI could be integrated to cut down development time and complexity. A thorough analysis was performed, but it was found that two years ago, Power BI was basically a black box with no ability to peel away different layers. We could not, for example, leverage the data ingest portions of Power BI with our own custom visualizations. We had to live in Power BI’s visualization technology with no ability to customize it to the needs of our customer. This prevented us from using Power BI as part of this campaign-based solution. That was then, but a lot has changed for the better in Power BI.
We constantly evaluate the current state of technology and products whenever we start a new data visualization project, and we are about to embark on a large-scale project spanning mobile and broadcast. We are evaluating a web-based approach with rich D3-based visualizations. A re-evaluation of Power BI was warranted as well. While we would likely be creating many high-end custom data visualizations, and need complete control of the navigation through the experience, there would still be many charts and reports that would be needed. Could Power BI enable these reports and allow us to build charts to be shown without developer intervention? Could Power BI be used for data ingest with our own custom user experience? With Power BI’s recent upgrades, the answer is yes.
We can now leverage Power BI for all data ingest and create custom data visualizations to render the information. We have complete control of the user experience with all the goodness of Power BI managing all the data ingest. Additionally, we can take charts directly from Power BI and integrate them into our custom experience. For this project, content authors constantly need new charts for one off data stories to deliver key points. With Power BI, they will not need developers to add charts for them – they could simply use the Power BI tools to create the charts and the custom experience will pick it up and render it. Overall, the solution is much more robust and malleable to our customer’s specific needs.
As an example of how custom visualizations can be built on Power BI, we re-recreated a custom XAML chart control in D3 and used Power BI to drive data to it. This new control, called an “Impact Bubble Chart”, has been deployed to the Office store and is downloadable from here.
Our thought process for custom data visualization solutions has been affected by the evolution of Power BI in these key ways:
- Power BI can be used for managing data ingest without using its off-the-shelf visualization tools. Let the smart people at Microsoft build these tools for you to let Power BI do all the heavy lifting.
- The user experience does not need to be relegated to how Power BI would like to setup reports and dashboards. You can create your own web app and use elements of Power BI in.
- As exampled by the impact bubble chart, you are not limited to the charts provided to you by Power BI. You can always create your own and use it either in Power BI reporting experience or in your own custom app.
We would be happy to chat in more detail about how you can create your own data visualization solution. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org