Sorry MicroStrategy: Back to Excel

A few recent posts have documented my explorations with the new desktop software from MicroStrategy, clearly designed to compete with the likes of Tableau and Excel. One of the chief advantages of the MS offering is the free price point (as in $0), versus the much pricier Excel and especially, Tableau. As usual, I had to perform my due diligence, as is the case with every new tool I get my hands on.

The MS Analytics offering does have a lot to recommend it by, as I noted in my previous posts. However, after a few weeks of intensive exploration, I have come to the conclusion that it isn’t a good fit for what I’m currently attempting to do, which is to create graphics for a pair of upcoming books. While it is perhaps easier to manage the data compared to Excel, the structure is a bit too rigid, and the chart options are also too structured and limiting for my current needs. It’s still useful, but not so much in the current context.

Which brings me back to Excel. For all its faults, Excel is still very powerful, and most importantly for me, very flexible. I can hack my way into almost any sort of chart, aided by the likes of Jon Peltier, Chandoo, and Fabrice Rimlinger. So Excel it is, at least for this project.

Now that I know what I’m doing, it’s high time to get back to work and deliver these books! Look for the 1901-68 pennant races in December, and the 1969-2013 to follow in early 2014.

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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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A New Analytics Tool from MicroStrategy

Being the analysis geek that I am, I’m always on the lookout for anything new in the data analysis and visualization space. New insights, techniques, people, datasets, tools, etc. always intrigue me and help keep things fresh. Any time I come across something new makes it a rewarding day, especially when it leads to something that can help me with my baseball analysis.

So today was one of those days where I stumbled across a new tool, courtesy of a new blog I also stumbled upon. The new tool comes courtesy of MicroStrategy, one of the mainline Business Intelligence (BI) players in the industry, and is called Analytics Desktop, and quite remarkably is a free tool (as in $0.00!). So of course I had to evaluate the latest (released October 2013) addition to this interesting space.

My previous impression of MicroStrategy was tepid at best, given my familiarity with their large scale BI installations for major corporations, including one I had previously used in the corporate world. It was highly structured, felt inflexible, and churned out canned reports that took too long to run. In short, I saw it as a dinosaur app, even several years ago, competing with the likes of Cognos and other major BI players in the world of operational reporting.

The new tool is clearly designed to compete with Tableau and other nimble, visually-oriented BI vendors who understand that the business analysis space has evolved (far) beyond applications that are controlled by the IT folks. Many of the old apps wind up gathering dust or are used to generate dull reports that shed little insight into the needs of the business. Good analysts have been bypassing those tools for years by dropping ad hoc data into Excel or (more recently) Tableau, where they can at least create some decent charts and tables without having to wage battles with unfriendly BI servers.

Enough of the background – what’s the early verdict? In a word, impressive! I’m only a couple hours in, but have managed to complete the installation, configure the connection to my databases, and begin playing with data. The user interface is easy to navigate, the charts are clean and nicely styled, and the ability to work with filters, pages, sorting, and more appears to make this a very powerful app. While some of my favorite chart types are not here – horizon charts, bullet charts, and a couple others – my first impressions are hugely favorable.

I’m going to give a more complete review soon, after I’ve had time to work through some of the ideas I had been intending for Excel. In the meantime, here’s a quick look at a dashboard I created using team level data.

Pretty sweet, isn’t it? The ability to combine multiple chart and data elements into a dashboard is one of the strengths of Analytics Desktop, and one that I expect to tap into in the coming weeks. Much more to come on this one.

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