Leverage your data with business intelligence – BI tools for visualizing big data

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Leverage your data with business intelligence software

This is the first installment of our blog series of Data Science and AI posts by Dr Colin O’Callaghan of 3Advance.

The scale of data your company generates each day is both a blessing and a curse. Sure, there are insights it can offer, but it’s scattered across dozens of different online services and apps. As we discussed in our previous blog post on AI, this information is powerful. With proper analysis, your data can ultimately:

  • increase productivity,
  • improve sales,
  • grow your customer base, and most importantly,
  • increase profits.

AI techniques are used more and more to augment data analysis, leading to predictive insights that were impossible a few years ago! In this post, we outline tips and tools that can help you get started with successful data analysis.

The first step is to actually gather all your data in one place. Only then can you start performing statistical analysis. Thankfully, there are products on the market that connect with many different online services and databases. These products are commonly referred to as Business Intelligence (BI) software. BI software can generate real-time visuals and analysis of all your data, giving insights you can act on quickly. We took the time to investigate several leading BI products. All these products offer slightly different services and price plans, but they have a lot in common.

During our investigations, there were several questions we kept in mind. 

1.  Can the BI platforms sync with all the data sources we use in real time?

The answer is, for the most part, yes! All the platforms sync with online data sources and update with new information as it occurs. By data sources, we mean Google Analytics, Azure, AWS, Salesforce, Stripe, etc. It is also possible to load data stored on your computer.

There is a downside. Many of the connectors used to sync your data are developed by 3rd parties and usually require a paid subscription. However, these same BI platforms also offer the ability to make custom connectors to different websites, which means you dont have to use 3rd party connectors (and pay for them). This requires coding ability and an understanding of syncing databases, something we specialize in here at 3Advance.

2. What kind of data visualization can be performed on the platform?

The same type of graphs found on Excel or Google Sheets are available: line plots, histograms, pie charts, etc. Some platforms have built-in geographic displays (i.e., plotting numbers over regions). This can highlight geographic trends in your data in a much more striking way than the usual histogram or pie chart. These visualizations should cover the vast majority of applications. All the products have a dashboard feature, giving users all the collected data in one easy-to-access place.

3. Can data be downloaded from the platforms for advanced statistics and AI applications?

Yes! The act of gathering your data and its visualization gives you a clear understanding of what data you have access to and what it means. This is key to any future AI integrations, future-proofing your organization for the AI and IOT industrial revolution.

Here are 5 BI packages we looked into and a list of their unique selling points:

Tableau

Tableau offers packages with different user levels that have different access rights. There are “Creators” who can create new projects (think administrators), “Explorers” who can edit existing projects, and “Viewers” who have read-only rights. This is great for large companies who want to customize the data that is accessed by each user. Tableau has both desktop and browser versions. Tableau was recently acquired by Salesforce for $15.6 billion, so there could be big developments with this software in the future.

Pros: Intuitive UI, lots of data source integration.
Cons: limited graph-formats, unknown product roadmap after acquisition by Salesforce. 

An example of a Tableau dashboard.

Tableau dashboard example.

Google Data Studio

Google’s BI tool is easy to get up and running. It takes a couple of clicks with a Google account and you’re away! This is browser based like other Google apps and can link with apps like Sheets and Docs. Data Studio is designed to work with BigQuery, a pay-as-you-use data warehouse. However, Data Studio can sync with and analyze the same data sources as the other BI packages. Custom connections to web services can be written in Google Apps Script, Google’s own language which is similar to JavaScript.

Pros: Ease of setting up account, close integration with Google products, browser-based, and …FREE!
Cons: Occasional database connection-drops, requires a lot of custom-built/3rd party connections.

Google data studio dashboard example.

Looker

Looker is a web-based platform that has all the functionality you would want, and it is easy to use. The platform is built with a proprietary data analysis language, LookML, which is used for custom analysis and visualization. The system admin can customize data access rights for each user. Looker does not advertise their prices, but you can get in touch with them for a quote. Google recently acquired Looker for $2.6 billion, making it likely there will be closer integration with the existing Google Cloud infrastructure.

Pros: Great customer support, fast data analytics, potential for closer Google product integration in the future.
Cons: Proprietary coding language LookML – higher learning curve for getting started.

Looker dashboard example.

PowerBI

This is Microsoft’s native BI package. PowerBI links well with different Microsoft packages, and it can also sync with a wide range of different databases. If your company does a lot with Excel, this could be a great extension. There is a free version with limited capabilities and subscriptions for more advanced features.

Pros: Easy integration with Microsoft apps, user-friendly (particularly for Excel users).
Cons: Windows OS needed for the desktop version… Sorry Mac users!!

Power BI dashboard example.

Sisense

Sisense is a great solution for large organizations who may have 100s of simultaneous users. They use software that maximizes your computer’s performance, resulting in very quick analysis of your data. User access to data can be customized, ideal for large organizations. The platform has both cloud and on-site options that are designed to scale with your growing database.

Pros: Highly scalability, great customer support, quick analysis of very large data-sets (10s of millions of rows).
Cons: Complex to operate, pricing plans not transparent.

Sisense dashboard example.

Currently, we use Google Data Studio for our BI needs. We have written several custom API connectors to extract data from different services we use. By building our own connections we can reuse and quickly develop connections for ourselves and our clients in the future, without relying on 3rd party services. Some key reasons for our choice are that it is free,  and we can easily link with BigQuery, Firebase, and other Google products we use in our apps. Another reason for our choice is that Data Studio is web-based, we and our clients can access it on all operating systems. We are creating custom dashboards for our clients to display key metrics about their apps in real-time. If you would like help implementing a BI platform for better insights from your data, get in touch

3Advance is an app development company in Washington DC that helps startups, non-profits, and other businesses turn great ideas into beautiful, simple mobile and desktop apps. If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you create a better way forward for your business, drop us a line. We’d love to hear from you.

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