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Jamie Thomson

This is the blog of Jamie Thomson, a freelance data mangler in London

Thinking differently about BI delivery

My day job involves implementing Business Intelligence (BI) solutions which, as I have said before, is simply about giving people the information they need to do their jobs. I’m always interested in learning about new ways of achieving that aim and that is my motivation for writing blog entries that are not concerned with SQL or SQL Server per se.

Implementing BI systems usually involves hacking together a bunch third party products with some in-house “glue” and delivering information using some shiny, expensive web-based front-end tool; the list of vendors that supply such tools is big and ever-growing. No doubt these tools have their place and of late I have started to wonder whether they can be supplemented with different ways of delivering information.

The problem I have with these separate web-based tools is exactly that – they are separate web-based tools. What’s the problem with that you might ask? I’ll explain! They force the information worker to go somewhere unfamiliar in order to get the information they need to do their jobs. Would it not be better if we could deliver information into the tools that those information workers are already using and not force them to go somewhere else?

I look at the rise of blogging over recent years and I realise that what made them popular is that people can subscribe to RSS feeds and have information pushed to them in their tool of choice rather than them having to go and find the information for themselves in a tool that has been foisted upon them. Would it not be a good idea to adopt the principle of subscription for the benefit of delivering BI information as well? I think it would and in the rest of this blog entry I’ll outline such a scenario where the power of subscription could be used to enhance the delivery of information to information workers.


Typical questions that information workers ask might be:

  • What are my year-on-year sales figures?
  • What was my footfall yesterday?
  • How many widgets have I sold so far today?

Each of those questions includes a time element and that shouldn’t surprise us, any BI system that I have worked on includes the dimension of time. Now, what do people use to view and organise their time-oriented information? Its not a trick question, they use a calendar and in the enterprise space more often than not that calendar is managed using Outlook.

Given then that information workers are already looking at their calendar in Outlook anyway would it not make sense then to deliver information into that same calendar? Of course it would. Calendars are a great way of visualising information such as sales figures. Observe:

clip_image002

Just in this single screenshot I have managed to convey a multitude of information. The information worker can see, at a glance, information about hourly/daily/weekly/monthly sales and, moreover, he/she is viewing that information right inside the tool that they use every day. There is no effort on the part of him/her, the information just appears hour after hour, day after day. Taking the idea further, each one of those calendar items could be a mini-dashboard in its own right. Double-clicking on an item could show a plethora of other information about that time slot such as breaking the sales down per region or year-over-year comparisons. Perhaps the title could employ a sparkline? Loads of possibilities. The point is that calendars are a completely natural way to visualise information; we should make more use of them!

The real beauty of delivering information using calendars for us BI developers is that it should be so easy. In the case of Outlook we don’t need to write complicated VBA code that can go and manipulate a person’s calendar, simply publishing data in a format that Outlook can understand is sufficient and happily such formats already exist; iCalendar is the accepted format and the even more flexible xCalendar is hopefully on its way as well.

 

I’d like to make one last point and this one is with my SQL Server hat on. Reporting Services 2008 R2 introduced the ability to publish data as subscribable Atom feeds so it seems logical that it could also be a vehicle for delivering calendar feeds too. If you think this would be a good idea go and vote for it at Publish data as iCalendar feeds and please please please add some comments (especially if you vote it down).

Work smarter, not harder!

@Jamiet

Published Thursday, June 03, 2010 10:27 PM by jamiet

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Luke Hayler said:

Jamie,

This is a such great idea. I bet you could refine it too so that the feed is tailored to a specific individual/department/etc, much like you would do for a data driven subscription.

Great post. Consider this up-voted!

June 3, 2010 6:57 PM
 

Barnaby Self said:

Nice Idea, upvoted :)

June 4, 2010 5:16 AM
 

Mark Wojciehowicz said:

Jamie, this is a really interesting idea.  It feels like there could be a useful connection to smart phones in a similar way.

There is something I would like to add, though.  People are in web browsers all day long -- it's Facebook, it's weather, it's blogs...

I look at a browser more than a calendar, but maybe the issue is more that reporting platforms do not work by any standard so the user experience is always different and usually kind of awful.  

Marco Russo got me reading books by Stephen Few and it was the missing link in BI for me.  Here is his post on it --> http://sqlblog.com/blogs/marco_russo/archive/2010/03/02/do-more-with-less-the-missing-feature-in-excel-services.aspx

Defintely pick up Few's book on Dashboards.  The information worker needs the most amount of information packed into the smallest place possible and it's not just the right numbers.

June 4, 2010 9:41 PM
 

Cade Roux said:

I am totally on board with delivering information in-band as much as possible, and directly to the person who can do something about it.  When we had exception reports, they were always emailed to the person who can fix them, sent on behalf of the person whom it would cause the problem.  Where possible the data was in the email, and did not require a visit to the report on a web page.

Instead of people being required to use reports to carry out their work, I preferred the data driving a workflow interface so that the user can make informed decisions on the data in one place, not having to synthesize multiple reports and determine what to work on.

Calendars (and appointments) are great for getting stuff in front of the users at the right time.  Another place I've done it is in the timeclock (it's not just for tracking time any more) and getting CRM data in front of people taking calls in your call center and technical support application - staff birthdays and other useful information about customers right when they are answering the phone (open calls, problem rates).  It's a lot easier to keep a customer happy when it sounds like you know all about the calls they've been making to the help desk all week - and a great tech support rep can REALLY help your company reputation by getting closure on multiple open issues.

Because, for me, the decision support which is really the most important to your company is at this level.  A lot of the BI which goes to executives is too gross and too late to make a difference.

June 5, 2010 7:39 PM
 

Thomas Ivarsson said:

I think that the first problem is to figure out how the end user would construct their information pizza and find the ingredients of that pizza in the black hole of information, that is the sad picture of how it works today in most organizations.

I think that this is the first issue that needs to be solved before you can place information/data fragments in a calendar.

Sorry for being negative but I think that information discovery comes first.

June 11, 2010 12:43 PM
 

jamiet said:

Thomas,

I never said anything to the contrary and I'm not advocating we all go out and surface something in a calendar without being concerned about the validity of that data. Yes, data in enterprises is terribly silo'd and that problem needs solving, however we shouldn't not think about how we're going to deliver information and make it actionable.

-Jamie

June 20, 2010 12:17 PM
 

Thomas Ivarsson said:

I agree Jamie. If you have e nice subscription model where end users can select what they would like to see in the calendar you idea is great.

July 4, 2010 9:03 AM
 

SSIS Junkie said:

To my mind the most interesting piece of news to come out of the recent PASS conference was the unveiling

October 24, 2011 7:08 AM
 

SSIS Junkie said:

Three weeks ago I published a blog post Get the SQLBits agenda in your phone's calendar where I said:

February 8, 2012 4:28 AM
 

SSIS Junkie said:

I don’t talk about data visualisation ( #dataviz ) much on this blog because, well, because its not something

October 17, 2012 11:16 AM
 

GR said:

Wow.  I was just looking at doing this and wondering if the ICS file format was the way to go. Screenshot made me a believer.

December 1, 2012 11:02 PM
 

SSIS Junkie said:

Three days ago I posted What would a cloud-based ETL tool look like? where I wondered out loud about

February 15, 2013 10:46 AM
 

SSIS Junkie said:

Here are some things that have piqued my interest on the interwebs over the last few days. Parameterized

March 9, 2013 1:30 PM
 

SSIS Junkie said:

In the same way that a map is a natural choice for displaying data with a geography element to it I’ve

April 4, 2013 8:27 AM
 

SSIS Junkie said:

Regular readers of my blog might have realised that I am a huge advocate of subscribable calendars and

April 25, 2013 4:02 PM
 

Jamie Thomson said:

This week a SharePoint conference took place somewhere and I took more than a passing interest because

March 7, 2014 4:06 AM
 

Jamie Thomson said:

If one spends long enough in my company one will likely eventually have to listen to me bark on about

August 18, 2014 9:03 AM

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