MicroStrategy Analytics Update

A few days ago, I stumbled across the free analytics offerings from MicroStrategy, as detailed in my last blog post. As you may recall, I had begun dabbling with the desktop version (there is also the online Analytics Express, with some slight differences), and promised to report back with further insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the tool. So here I am, in front of a Friday night fire (contained within our fireplace) in chilly Detroit, after having spent much of the day working with Analytics Desktop, or AD, as I’ll refer to it for the remainder of the post.

On balance, I’ve been favorably impressed with AD, although there may be a selfish motivation to take advantage of what AD can do. Given that I am in the midst of preparing a couple of highly visual baseball books to come out later this year and in early 2014, I saw an opportunity to tap into AD to create some of the visuals for the book. So I was sincerely hoping that I would like it, and that it could help make it easier for me to create certain portions of the book that would be far more laborious using Excel or other tools.

So with that out of the way, let’s walk through an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of AD, using examples whenever possible. Let’s start by getting the weaknesses out of the way, and then move on to the longer list of strengths AD brings to the table.

Weaknesses and shortcomings:

  1. The big one – AD uses Flash for all charts and dashboards within the app. Given that Flash is on the way out as a technology, this seems a curious choice. Perhaps the folks at MicroStrategy had a team of Flash developers sitting around, making it easier to launch the product quickly. Clearly, javascript has taken over from Flash in the data viz universe, for a multitude of reasons, so using Flash is not going to wow anyone who’s familiar with d3, Protovis, or a handful of other open source libraries.

  2. Next is the use of a java server to run the app – based on the default port (8082), this feels like a Tomcat instance built into the application. This means that it takes some time to launch the app and have it load in your browser. To AD’s credit, it has run flawlessly on my machine, and was a breeze to install. Still, the combination of a java server and Flash may feel a bit awkward to a desktop user familiar with offerings from Tableau or other data viz vendors. It certainly will for the Excel crowd.

  3. For someone familiar with d3, or for that matter Tableau or Excel, AD will feel a bit constrained in terms of options; for example, it is a bit trickier to get colors to do what you want (a right click will get you the nearly meaningless Flash option settings). As someone with extensive Excel and Tableau experience, this is the most challenging element for me. Do not expect the same sort of capability from AD, although there are some options for customizing your charts and tables. In some ways, this makes the app feel outdated – modern visualization tools provide a great deal of flexibility by comparison.

Those are my three major observations after a few days of use, with number three covering a wide range of options that are either not available or that have been hard coded into the app, thus restricting or limiting your ability to create the chart of your dreams. Now, on to the positive stuff:

  1. Connecting to my data was an absolute breeze, at least after jumping through the Windows ODBC hoops (32 bit vs 64 bit). Once I figured out the correct ODBC executable on my machine, I was off to the races, and had a database connection within seconds. I use MySQL, so of course I needed the correct driver installed locally, but no issues there. After these steps were complete, I was able to view all my database tabs, and then write some simple SQL code in AD to bring back the data I needed. Once connected, here’s what I saw:

  2. The GUI is easy to navigate as well, showing the available dashboards, including samples to get you started, as shown here:

  3. Charts are very attractive, and can be easily re-sized within a dashboard; in fact, charts are easier to re-size here than in a comparable Tableau dashboard, where you need to set up frames in addition to the charts. Here are some example charts that may wind up in one of the books:

  4. A number of options are available for each chart, using a menu-driven approach (definitely not javascript here!)

  5. AD also has a ‘Page By’ option which is great for cases where you want to replicate the same charts or tables across multiple instances of a variable. In my case, this could be by team or by season. Set the page up once, set the page by variable, and you instantly get the same charts populated with data specific to the individual page. Pretty slick! Tableau has a similar feature, and you can use Excel pivot table functionality in the same way, although I find the AD approach to be more powerful and simple.

  6. Exporting to a PDF or image (.png) format is also very simple. From my perspective, the image export is excellent, as it captures the entire panel view of multiple charts as one image.

  7. Finally, it’s very easy to create multiple panels within a single page layout, as well as to add additional layout pages. These features make for a cleaner, easier to navigate feel versus the many tabs used in Tableau or Excel.

  8. That’s my take for now – all in all, AD is a great addition to the data viz toolkit, even with the Flash-based limitations. It won’t get you to some of the same places you can go with Excel, Tableau, or especially d3, but it is at least their equal in data handling and dashboard layout possibilities. If you work with .csv, Excel, or database data, give it a try!

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Ken Cherven is the Founder and Curator of the Visual-Baseball.com website. He loves to merge baseball data with all sorts of visualization methods - charts, network graphs, maps, etc. to provide greater insight into underlying data patterns. Ken also authors books about baseball and visualization, and loves to listen to jazz while drinking some wine, craft beer, or bourbon.