Microsoft Shows Off Power BI's Moves With SandDance

A new Power BI visualization from Microsoft Research provides an animated alternative to static charts and graphs.

Microsoft, Power BI, SandDance

During the inaugural Microsoft Data Insight Summit today, the software giant released SandDance, a new visualization tool for Power BI that helps unlock the storytelling potential of analytics data.

Power BI is an extensible, cloud-powered business intelligence (BI) toolset that supports custom visualizations built by both Microsoft and the software's community of users. "It's a community effort," Kamal Hathi, director of product management at Microsoft, told eWEEK. The platform is open to "anyone who's interested in building something for their own use or for community use. We actually provided source code of our visuals."

When Microsoft Research recently took a stab at creating Power BI visuals, it came up with SandDance, available today as both a custom visualization for Power BI and a stand-alone Web-based tool.

Instead of static charts and graphs, SandDance adds some animated flair to when users dig deeper into their Power BI data.

During a live demo of the technlogy, Hathi examined voter data from the 2012 election cycle. While he cycled through Power BI's reporting options, red and blue data points twisted and twirled like grains of sand—hence SandDance's name—finally settling into the familiar contours of a map of the United States. Data points can be further arranged into 3D stacks that can be viewed from practically any angle, generating new and potentially revealing perspectives on business information.

SandDance's use of real-time animated transitions isn't just for show, Hathi said. It helps to visually connect facts and figures, transforming business data into a story packed with insights and context into how it relates to each other. "You shouldn't underestimate the value of animation," he said.

Major Milestone

Power BI officially launched as a stand-alone product last July. Today, Microsoft revealed that the service has attracted 5 million subscribers.

It's an impressive feat, but the figure taken on its own sheds little light on the software's adoption in the enterprise, Hathi said. Power BI "is widely used in literally hundreds of thousands of organizations across the globe," he said, adding that ordinary business users, not only data scientists, are increasingly relying on the product.

To keep that momentum going, Microsoft is rolling out new enterprise-friendly features in the coming weeks.

Today, the company has switched on the ability to use Excel to analyze data modeled by Power BI. It also gained the ability to "pin from Excel," which helps keep Power BI dashboards up-to-date by pulling data from Excel on the desktop.

Later this month, Microsoft is planning to offer a preview of new role-level security capabilities for cloud models and direct query. It will enable businesses to restrict access to specific rows of data, providing users with customized and individualized views of Power BI data.

Also this month, customers will be able to keep an eye on their Power BI usage statistics with new tenant-level reports. They will offer managers insights into the overall use of the Power BI dashboard, data set, content packs and reports.

In April, Microsoft will issue a performance-enhancing update for Power BI's natural language Q&A interface. The company will also preview a new Q&A experience, powered in part by Cortana, that allows users to find answers and generate visualizations on the fly from direct query data stored on-premises or in the cloud.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...