Data visualisation - how a BI app helps you paint a picture worth a thousand numbers

Power BI offers a wide range of visualisations with various options in how you display data.

A picture is worth a thousand words - and a thousand numbers. The latest BI (business intelligence) apps can help you quickly achieve valuable insights, whether you're using Power BI, Zoho Analytics or something else. Here's how.

Today’s businesses have access to more data than ever, yet much of that information isn’t being put to good use. On average, between 60 per cent and 73 per cent of data in an enterprise goes unused for analytics, according to research firm Forrester

In other words, most organisations are missing many potential insights into their business, customers and markets.

To be fair, the increasing volume of available data has resulted in greater complexity, adding to the difficulty for businesses to manage, process and interpret all that information.

It is why business intelligence (BI) applications are becoming more popular; they extensively use graphics, or visualisations. These allow executives and other decision-makers to more easily identify complex data trends and insights, and act on them. In fact, several BI applications are designed to be self-service, so you don’t have to be a data scientist to use them.

Spreadsheets and other traditional reporting tools still have their place. However, you could spend days immersed in them and still miss insights that are instantly available with modern BI applications. As data visualisation expert David McCandless commented at CPA Congress 2018: “It’s about distilling and making information digestible.”

Of course, the insights gained are only as good as the data itself, and last month we covered various sources of useful data (see Discovering data in the February 2019 issue of INTHEBLACK). Once you’ve sourced the data, here’s how the new breed of BI applications can make it easier to analyse and apply the information.

We’re using Microsoft Power BI as an example because it’s one of the easier to use BI tools around. It’s available as a cloud-based subscription application or free desktop version.

Power BI lets you create and view relationships between the data tables you load.

Connecting data

The first step when using Power BI is to load some data. This can be as simple as loading an Excel file, but it also supports a wide range of data formats. It even connects to live sources, such as Salesforce, Google Analytics and QuickBooks Online for real-time insights.

Related article: How the right graphics take presentations to a new level

You can also add multiple data sources to the one data project. For example, you can include data from both accounting and customer relationship management (CRM) applications.

Combining and shaping data

To combine data from two or more applications, you may need to rename fields and make other adjustments with Power BI’s Query Editor, which works like queries in Microsoft Excel or Access. This also allows you to “shape” data, by removing columns or filtering rows from loaded data tables.

Analysts wanting to build complex data models can load data from multiple sources and create relationships between tables, much as you would in Access. Power BI also supports data analysis expressions (DAX): a collection of functions, operators and constants that can be used in a formula to make calculations, like Excel.

Creating visualisations

Power BI’s key difference from Excel and other data reporting tools is in the powerful ways it allows data presentation. It offers a wide variety of data visualisations, ranging from basics such as bar and pie charts to maps, scatter charts and many others. You can also add a KPI (key performance indicator) which, for example, can simply display a year-to-date figure along with the budgeted equivalent.

Visualisations can also be interactive – a great feature for maps and complex charts that allows you to zoom into specific areas to view data points.

Within Power BI’s visualisations section is an analytics subsection. This powerful tool allows you to analyse and model data in visualisations though “dynamic reference lines”. For example, you can quickly see the minimum, maximum and average figures for a sales bar chart. There’s even a forecasting feature for identifying likely future trends, based on historic figures and other variables.

Choosing the right visualisations is crucial to obtaining the best insights, and McCandless’s Information is Beautiful blog is a great source in this respect.

Besides Microsoft Power BI, there are plenty of other good BI options, such as Zoho analytics.

Reports and dashboards

Each visualisation created is added to a report, but you can also pin a visualisation – or the whole report – to a dashboard, which is a key feature of BI applications.

The dashboard allows you to quickly see the latest and most important trends and KPIs. Power BI also permits creation of multiple dashboards for various needs or different people.

Beyond Power BI: other options

We’ve just scratched the surface of what’s possible with Power BI, and it’s not the only BI application that offers visualisations. It is well worth considering or trying other applications because they differ in approach and what they offer.

Perhaps the best-known alternative is Tableau. It’s been around for a long time and has evolved into a powerful BI tool that offers a wide range of visualisations, along with advanced real-time and predictive analytics.

Qlik offers a range of visualisation and analytics tools for different business needs, with Qlik Sense probably best suited to regular business users.

For small businesses wanting a user-friendly web visualisation app, Zoho Analytics is worth considering. At the other end of the scale, Plotly’s Dash and Chart Studio is aimed at developers and enterprises wanting to create rich analytics web apps and visualisations.

There are plenty of other alternatives for various needs, including IBM’s Cognos Analytics, Salesforce’s Einstein Analytics, SAS’s BI solutions, SAP’s BusinessObjects, Sisense, ThoughtSpot and TIBCO Spotfire.

Read next: New to data analytics? These tools can get you started.

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