Disrupting the banking market

This video shows a comprehensive solution geared around disruption in the Banking market, from transactions through to advanced analytics.

The viewer meets 3 different customers, their challenges and how the bank responds to them.

Test drive AWS QuickSight

As part of our commitment to deliver the best possible business outcome for our Advanced Analytics customers, we ensure that we remain across the technologies that enable us to deliver such outcomes. This test drive of AWS’ QuickSight BI tool and its underlying parallel processing engine (SPICE) is part of that commitment to our customers and to the wider Data and Analytics market.

View our video test drive:

And download the full article here.


A story is worth a thousand visuals

In my previous article (Colouring with numbers – Can data present a better picture?), I outlined some principles that I have found to be useful when creating data visualizations. I also promised to take you through each of the principles I had outlined in more depth to hopefully help explain the concepts over the next few weeks.

The first principle I will cover is that of storyboarding.

Any report can contain information. It’s relatively easy to just place random visualizations together to display information from a multitude of data sources. But without context or structure does this add any value or provide a better experience for the report reader?

Our job as report writers is to try and make it as easy as possible for the reader to consume the information and then apply this to make interpretive decisions. If we fail to carefully curate the requirements of a report, poor or even wrong inferences can be drawn from the information that is presented even though the data underpinning the report may be correct.

As discussed previously less and less time is being spent by people on in-depth reading as information moves to screen-based technology. Facts and understanding need to be imparted as quickly as possible to the reader otherwise they won’t spend the time to synthesize the information.

Ironically, you may be even doing it now as you read through this blog and just try to assess the highlights and quickly evaluate if it’s worth your time to spend on reading it.

So how do we ensure we craft something that will meet the challenges of engagement and understanding with the report reader?

By following a methodology called storyboarding.

Storyboarding was originally created in the movie industry to help plan the camera work and ensure continuity of the story. It allowed them to shoot various scenes out of order and then splice them back together to make a coherent story. This concept is similar to what we need to do when creating reports. We take themes or topics and visually place them in a contextually relevant order that will lead the report reader through the information presented to them.

So how do we start this process?

  1. Gather requirements – By writing out the concepts required in the report, (my personal preference is to use Post-It® notes for this) one requirement to a page. I’d also recommend leaving room for sketching ideas of potential visualizations or presentations above each topic.
  1. Create themes – Once you have each of the requirements, identify themes that are contextually relevant to the report.


  1. Sequence – Order the themes and requirements together. Add, move or remove requirements and themes as required to create the “story” for the report. Think about how the construct and flow of the story are to go and how report readers may traverse the information within the report.

Linear Story Sequence


Problem Analysis


Comparative Analysis                                             Cause and Effect


Finally, once your storyboard is complete. Read through it and ensure that it meets the requirements of the three key areas;

  • Audience – who is this information intended for?
  • Function – what is the purpose of this report?
  • Presentation – how is the report to be displayed?

Once you are satisfied with the storyboard you should now be ready to start identifying the visualizations that will best present the information which I will be covering in my next article.



Old faithful is renewed – welcome to Cubes as a Service

Analysis Services (as a) Service

For BI professionals, the main component used to provide a rich business-friendly enterprise information layer to non-technical users at scale was SQL Server Analysis Services (Power BI models achieves the same, but is limited by scale).

One major downside of Analysis Services was its requirement to be on premise (with “on-premise” I, of course, include Virtual Machines through Infrastructure as a Service) – so no modern analytics architecture that included Analysis Services could claim to be server-less, and such modern cutting edge Analytics Architectures therefore always required a bit of the old (the other components in the same camp are Reporting- and Integration Services).

This will soon no longer be the case, Microsoft recently announced Analysis Services Service. This is basically Cubes as a Service.

 (Grinslade, 2016)

We feel once this service is released for General Availability, it will be a become a very common component of any large and modern Data Analytics landscape.

The benefits:

·       Arguably the most important benefit is cost – (following the pattern used by Microsoft for their Data warehouse as a Service, SQLDW) is the ability to pause the service, which means, together with scaling up or down, you pay only for what you use. There are major cost benefits associated with this compared to maintaining servers (incl. IaaS) to host Analysis Services.

·       It makes moving the business from on-premise to the cloud much simpler.

·       It helps achieve a server-less ecosystem which means the cloud provider (in this case Microsoft) can take care of commoditized services (like infrastructure, availability, and recovery).

·       It is easy to scale (through Query Processing Units) and to pause.

·       The service is in the cloud, so connecting to cloud data sources is as expected very simple, and connecting to on-premise data sources is enabled through the on-premise data gateway (you may already use this in your Power BI solutions, and if not it is very easy to deploy).



 (Duncan, 2016)

·       One of the downsides of the (underlying) data model created in Power BI (in Import mode) is that fact that it is a black box, not accessible by other BI tools. Analysis Services Service overcomes this limitation.



 (Duncan, 2016)

Purely Technical benefits

·       The service is built on SQL Server 2016 Analysis Services Enterprise Edition so for those BI professionals familiar with this technology there is no new skills to learn.

·       There is a time benefit – technical professionals can now spend their time developing truly great Analysis Services solutions without having to be distracted by infrastructure challenges (like setting up and configuring servers to host the solution).

The service is still in its infancy and many things simply do not work, but we will be test driving it in due course, so watch out for a blog post once it goes into General Availability.

Let’s hope Microsoft embraces the same strategy for Integration Services (ETL) and Reporting Services (paginated reports)


Duncan, O. (2016, October 26). What is Azure Analysis Services? Retrieved from https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/documentation/articles/analysis-services-overview/

Grinslade, B. (2016, October 25). Announcing Azure Analysis Services preview. Retrieved from https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/introducing-azure-analysis-services-preview/

Microsoft. (n.d.). Azure Analysis Services. Retrieved from https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/services/analysis-services/



Colouring with numbers – Can data present a better picture?

Coloring with numbers – Can data present a better picture? Time to bring sexy back!

With the rise of self-service reporting, is just presenting the data enough? Or is how information is presented just as impactful as to what is being presented?

As people are becoming increasingly exposed to data visualization through infographics, digital dashboards, and interactive websites, there is a growing expectation that information is presented in a visually coherent and aesthetic manner. People are becoming trained to skim read what is displayed on a screen versus in-depth reading that traditionally occurred with information presented on paper.

A 2005 study by Ziming Liu of San Jose University looked at how reading behavior had changed over the previous ten years from paper to screen and found exactly this pattern.

“The screen‐based reading behavior is characterized by more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one‐time reading, non‐linear reading, and reading more selectively, while less time is spent on in‐depth reading, and concentrated reading. Decreasing sustained attention is also noted.” Liu summarised.

Perceivably, there is limited time for a digital report to grab a reader’s focus and impart the requisite information.

So with this in mind how do we ensure we are delivering information clearly to the report reader?

Before we start designing our report, there are three main areas to establish an understanding for that will influence the report design; audience, function, and presentation.

  1. Audience – who is this information intended for? Without a good grasp on this understanding, we can fail in producing a report that addresses the need and ensures clarity of message.
  2. Function – what is the purpose of this report? Knowing the expectation of use of the report helps in ensuring the right information is used and represented to the reader.
  3. Presentation – how is the report to be displayed? There is an ever-increasing number of portals in which information can be displayed; paper, mobile screens, large format displays. While one report design may work for one particular presentation method, it doesn’t mean it will automatically work for another.

Identifying answers to these key areas will help us to focus and increase the success with which our report is interpreted.

We’ve already noted that our audience is spending less and less time actually reading information and even less time interpreting it. Generally, an audience is expecting a report to provide an answer to a question.

How much of our product did we sell last month?

What were my child’s grades for each of their subjects?

What is the temperature forecast for the next week?

The audience doesn’t want to have to perform their own exploration of the data to find the answer to the question that brought them to the report in the first instance. It is our role as the report designer to perform this on their behalf and to visualize this information as clearly and succinctly as possible for them.

Once the audience has found the answer to their initial question, they will either absorb this information and move on or immediately want to apply this new information to other scenarios to assist with further decision making.

What would happen to our revenue from the sale of our product if we had raised or lowered the price?

Were my child’s grades reasonable compared to the rest of the class?

Will I need to take an umbrella this week?

These additional questions aren’t normally identified in the initial discovery phase when trying to understand the requirements of the report as they won’t have been conceptualized until the initial answer is presented and the context will be different depending on who’s consuming the report. It’s in trying to offer the capability to provide answers to these unrealized questions as quickly and clearly as possible to the audience is where the true art of self-service report design is realized.

So now we have a presumably impossible task of providing answers to questions that don’t exist while making sure information is clearly presented, easily interpreted and visually appealing.

How do we achieve this?

There are some principles of the design of reports that I have found to be quite useful to assist with the design process:

  1. Storyboard the report – Try and find the “story” within the information. What is trying to be said? Where does it start and where does it finish? This will help in understanding the context of the information within a report, outline potential ways the data could be used, alternative questions that could be asked and identify any relationship between the data being visualized.
  2. Assign visualizations – Choose relevant visuals to portray the information as coherently and succinctly as possible. It isn’t just as simple as having any visualization to display the information as you have to ensure the capabilities support the three influencers of audience, function, and presentation.
  3. Define user experience – Critical to ensuring the audience can find and interpret the information that is being presented. To do this effectively requires thought behind –
    • Navigation – Decide how the report reader will move through the report to find the information they require with as little resistance as possible, but also don’t discount enabling the explorative value in your design as this may also be how hidden information is brought to their attention creating new and insightful knowledge.
    • Layout – Identify where visualizations and navigations are placed to enhance the user experience. Clarity and brevity are important. Remove anything that isn’t enhancing your story or offering benefit to the audience.
    • Colour – Colour plays an important role in both clarity and engagement with a report. By utilizing color effectively information can be enhanced and importance highlighted. It can also allow the audience to form an emotive attachment ensuring better interpretation of the information presented. But also keep in mind that color is highly subjective and can be responded to differently by different audiences.
  4. Iteration – A report is a dynamic entity and needs to be constantly honed against needs and requirements. It can be consistently improved with the addition of further input from users, change in visualizations and datasets. Recognise the thought and effort you put into the report but don’t become emotionally invested in it as when you release it in front of an audience, they will be the ones who will ultimately decide whether it is right for them or not. So be prepared to accept critique and take it into consideration when iterating your report.

In the coming weeks, I will be working through each of these principles with an example to help illustrate how each can be effectively utilized. I hope you enjoy the journey with me.

Ziming Liu, “Reading behavior in the digital environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years”, Journal of Documentation, Vol. 61 Iss: 6, pp.700 – 712

UPDATED: ArcGIS Maps for Power BI provided by Esri (Preview)

Microsoft recently announced ArcGIS Maps for Power BI provided by Esri. This functionality is still only in preview, but we decided to give it a test drive. https://powerbi.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/announcing-arcgis-maps-for-power-bi-by-esri-preview/

We used data from our social media solution to visualize with this new feature. The results were pretty impressive as shown in the images below and a huge improvement over the existing Map visual.





There is a BUT! This feature is not currently available for Power BI Service, so its application is very limited. Of course, the feature is still only in preview, so it will be corrected soon as confirmed in this thread. http://community.powerbi.com/t5/Desktop/ArcGIS-Maps-for-Power-BI-Preview-Discussion/td-p/72947

UPDATE: Microsoft has announced that the ArcGIS mapping service is now available in Preview in the Power BI service as per this post from Microsoft on 24 November https://powerbi.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/arcgis-maps-for-powerbi-available-in-powerbi-service/.

Synergy Reporting


The Synergy Solution assists organizations with accessing their people, finance, and operational data at any time, in any place and on any device in order to make informed business decisions without the need for static reports and reliance on IT.

Download the brochure here: synergy-brochure

Here is a quick demo of Synergy