Using Power BI to Build a Data-Driven Business

Why do we choose to use Power BI over other tools?

Gemma Christie10 mins


Are you looking to use data visualization to identify patterns and trends? To make decisions out of your data?

Are you thinking about using data visualization in your business? There are several data visualization tools currently in the market, and many providers. We chatted to a couple of data experts on our team, Tim Volz and Mike Schmerbeck, about how they used Power BI to deliver an industry leading GPS analysis tool. The first of its kind, CleanCar, analyses your driving data to tell you what kind of vehicle would suit your lifestyle and save you money - electric, hybrid or neither. Read on to find out why they choose to use Power BI over other tools, how they integrate it with other platforms, and how they deliver data solutions quicker than anyone else.

Interviewer: Ryan Palsho, Senior Vice President of Global Data Consulting and Solutions

Interviewees: Tim Volz, Business Intelligence Analyst Mike Schmerbeck, React Developer

Q: Tim, can you tell me why Power BI has been the been the right tool for the job for you, as an analyst?

T: Power BI is a very powerful tool with a great deal of flexibility. It allows you to pull your data from any source and shape it in any way you want. Effectively, the back end of Power BI is an ETL tool in itself. it’s a really versatile back end with great capacity to do data cleansing and data profiling. I don’t think we’ve ever come across anything like it.

On the front end, once you’ve shaped your data, you can use it to build a really complex model. There are a lot of ways to slice your data, which is really fantastic.

As it’s a Microsoft product, the dashboards have very familiar look and feel to them. Power BI uses a language called Dax, which is very close to Excel in its syntax.

This speed of use is where power BI really comes in to play for tools like CleanCar. No two customers for CleanCar are going to need the exact same thing. We have our base reports, but they always need some customisation along the way.

Power BI lets you do it: 1. Quickly, 2. At less cost to the customer at the end.

For example, in a custom build we might need to change the positions of the dashboards on screen, which can take a couple of hours. With Power BI, it takes a couple of minutes. It’s very quick to adapt to customer needs and lets you go as complex as you want. You can build all types of complex formulas, pulling in python and other scripting languages as necessary, to support your analysis. It’s a very powerful tool.

Q: Can you tell us about a custom data tool you’ve created using Power BI?

T: One of the things that I’ve built for CleanCar is a calculator, which works out the total cost of ownership for a vehicle over a lifetime.

Imagine you’re weighing your options between your typical petrol vehicle or an electric vehicle. The calculator gives you a way to say, ‘how much is this electric vehicle going to cost me over a 3-year period, what’s my total cost of ownership here?’

This is how we calculate the cost.

A – We’re using GPS data that we’re collecting based on users driving habits. B – We’re pulling data out of an API, and pulling it back into the database on API key resources, allowing us to collect vehicle stats. We can then work out how much an electric vehicle would cost them per month, per year and per mile/km.

Q: Who would you expect to use this calculator?

T: The audience splits into two categories. Firstly, a consumer, trying to decide whether to buy an electric vehicle, or what type of vehicle to choose.

Secondly, larger companies that have fleets. A company might have a fleet of 50 trucks or vans, which drive X miles per day. So this tool helps businesses see what type of vehicle would be most suitable for the fleet, and whether they’d save money by going electric.

Q: Do you still consider a Power BI a custom solution?

T: We tailor every single report, chart and graph to each customer’s specific needs. Ultimately, we build custom solutions with an out of the box tool.

Q: How does Power BI help you deliver custom solutions, compared to other tools?

T: I think the real advantage here is time to insight. It used to be about 2-3 months for deployment, now we’re looking at 2-3 weeks tops.

The hardest part of any data project is wrapping your head around the data, getting it into a database and getting it into a form where you’ve set all the relationships. When you can sit Power BI on top of that, with a basic understanding of data and what the user wants, you can very quickly turn the raw data into something the customer wants to use.

Post-delivery, once the end user has the dashboards and they request something else they’d like to see in the reports, the changes are really quick. We’re able to be a lot more responsive.

Q: What are day-to-day user benefits of using Power BI, over other similar tools?

T: 1- The UI is very familiar if you’re a Microsoft user, which most people are. 2- It’s easy to share what you're doing. I’ve had previous experience with other tools before and if you want to share what you’re working on with another developer or anyone else, you essentially have to create a managed package to share it. Power BI compresses data very cleanly, so you can hand these things off, send them off, and move them around an organisation.

Q: What have your experiences been in integrating Power BI with other platforms, like React?

When we first integrated React and Power BI, we found there were a lot of moving pieces to figure out. But once we had the reports, workspace and display set up, it was relatively easy. I essentially embedded the Power BI report into a custom iframe, which we were then able to replicate much faster on the next project.

For CleanCar, we use React as the front end and Power BI as the analytic engine and the dashboard. Power BI is very modular, and the two tools work together really effectively, allowing us to manipulate complex data quickly and make changes on the fly, without racking up unnecessary costs.

Q: What are the benefits of working with a company like The Virtual Forge?

T: People talk a lot about self-service BI. One of the pitfalls of that, in a business context, is a lot of end users don’t have the time for something like self-service Power BI. To me, it’s a question of can your internal teams deliver on this? Usually they are working on other projects and don’t have the time to work on delivering these specific needs for your business. This is where we can step in and really serve people. Because we have the team, the knowledge and the tools to deliver solutions very quickly.

Q: And what makes you the right choice for delivering Power BI?

T: Power BI has only been around for 3 years, which is relatively young for a BI type platform, but it seems Microsoft are moving all their analytics services in this direction, replacing certain reporting and integration tools with Power BI tools. We have a fundamental understanding of how the fundamental pieces work, from the data modelling to the ETO piece, so we can guide our clients smoothly through any Microsoft transitions.

M: Power BI is pretty popular and other people are using it. However, the ability to very quickly spin up a full web app, insert this custom Power BI right into a website and deploy it? – you’ll struggle to find other companies doing that.

Q: Anything else you think people should know about working with The Virtual Forge?

T: We can take your data from end-to-end. We can build the very back end - the data lake, to store your data. Then we can continue to build a solution that provides insight.

Some shops will only do the analytics, insight, some will only do the database side. We offer the holistic approach which is all the way through. In the process, we build an understanding of your data so that we have a strong basis for analysis. We get to the point where we know exactly what you want and exactly how to deliver it.

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