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“Star Database”

Last week someone asked me if I knew anything about “Star Database”. At the time, I did not. However, I did know about the Star schema/structure of that “data warehouse”. These tech jargons keep making their way into the discussions about business intelligence (BI)/reporting /dashboarding and sometimes they can be confusing. Following is an attempt to shed some light on the use of databases without all the jargon for business intelligence.

From a high level perspective we can put the databases in two categories for business intelligence purposes:

1. Data Collection databases
2. Business Intelligence databases

The first category is all about enabling an organization to function and assist in its operations. Good examples of data collecting databases are ERP, HR, Sales, Marketing applications. This data generates from day-to-day activities and is crucial for the organization to function.

Due to various factors this data is
• stored in multiple databases
• structured a certain way (“Normalized”)
• detailed and may not be BI ready
• often times vendor-specific

The second category is all about enabling the decision making of the organization (at all levels, especially at the executive level). Most of the data in these databases is derived from the first category. The term information is used instead in this category because we are trying to make sense of the data and convert it into pieces of information that can be used in decision making. This information empowers the organization to plan, analyze, grow and better itself. Dashboard, Reporting, Business Analytics, Predictive Analytics and Planning applications are good examples for utilizing this type of database.

Data in this category is
• very concise
• well defined for the decision making process
• structured for easy retrieval
• structured in certain way (“de-normalized”, “Star”, “Data mart (DM)”, “Data warehouse (DW)”, “Summary”, “OLAP”, “Cube”, “Enterprise data warehouse (EDW)”)
• generally aggregated/calculated from the first category
• stored into one or only a few databases
• clean with great quality

For business intelligence tools (Dashboard, Reports, Analytics etc.) the second category is the preferred way to go. These tools pull quality and aggregated data (information) to be used for decision making. However, sometimes you may see exceptions where business intelligence tools are getting the data from the first category database.

This division of databases into two categories has traditionally been the case and still prevalent. However, there are several emerging technologies which are following different patterns to cater to the needs of both the categories e.g.:
• database appliance
• Big Data infrastructure
• database as service/database in Cloud
• database web services
• Self data discovery

Still confused about some jargons or similar topics, leave a comment below.

Zahid Ansari – Principal Consultant, iDashboards

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Using Color Ranges for Easy Management by Exception

One question that all managers ask themselves is: “What are we doing well and what are we not doing well?” As you look at your spreadsheets and reports, it’s sometimes hard to tell at a quick glance where the problem areas are so you can focus your time and efforts on the areas that need it the most. One of the features in iDashboards that helps to solve that problem is our Color Range Sets. So, how do they work?

Let’s take the following map chart as an example:

In this map chart, a sales executive is able to use a simple red, yellow, green color scheme to see which states have revenue below $10,000,000 (in red) and which are above $25,000,000 (in green). As soon as he or she opens the dashboard, the executive can tell that the company is struggling with sales in four states and will be able investigate why.

To create your own color range sets, just right-click on your chart, select chart properties, and find the colors tab. You will see the section called Range Sets:

Here you will able to create as many or as few ranges as you like. You can add colors by clicking on the empty color box near the bottom, selecting your color, then entering the lower number of your range. It’s that simple! You can use these ranges on all kinds of charts, like bar charts, line charts, speedometers, and more. Just keep in mind that for some chart types, such as bar charts, you may have to go to the features tab to enable showing the colors (In that case you have the option to color code the bars or the grid background).

So now that you know how to color code your charts, go try it yourself and see how much easier it can be to visualize your data!

Alex Stark- Technical Consultant, iDashboards

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Keep Calm and Chart On

I’ll let you in on a secret. Your charts don’t have to be perfect. There, I’ve said it, so now you know. Go forth, build charts, and let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Oh, you are still reading? OK, let me explain. Charts and dashboards should evolve, so don’t spend too much time worrying about Version 1.0. When you are prototyping quickly you don’t need to worry about creating the perfect charts, layouts, or colors on the first try. As your data comes to life with visual dashboards, your storyboards can and will change. If storyboarding was a one-shot deal we would carve them in stone instead of drawing them on whiteboards.

“Save As” is my second most-used feature in iDashboards (my favorite is the “Preview” button, which lets me test design tweaks on the fly). Every time I train new users, I compare iDashboards to a digital camera. Years ago, you had to worry about the cost of film but with a digital camera, you can take as many pictures as you like. With iDashboards you are not paying per chart or per dashboard, so make as many as you like! When you are done, you can go back and delete any charts/dashboards/pictures that you really do not need.

Saving multiple versions of dashboards and charts is a key part of my workflow, and I highly recommend the same for yours. Whether it’s trying out different layouts or overhauling existing dashboards with new metrics, it’s always good to keep backups of your older designs. Select “Save As” from the right-click menu, and simply increment the version number of your dashboard or chart. You never know when you might show off a new design to your end users and they say “Oh you know what, the old version was better.” If you overwrote it, you might have to rebuild it from scratch! Of course, not every change has to be versioned; you can make a judgment call on how significant the change is.

I always remember the user who added a version number to his first practice dashboard, not as ‘v1’ or ‘v01’, but ‘v001’. Seeing my confused look, he said, “I know I will make that many versions!” It may have been overkill, but he definitely had the right attitude from the start. Don’t be afraid to make new charts, and don’t be afraid to try new things.

In the future, we will share other design tips, tricks, and shortcuts to simplify your dashboard development. In the meantime, Keep Calm and Chart On!

Warren Singh- Technical Consultant, iDashboards

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Cascading Parameters Solution

The new drilldown type “Dashboard Parameters” in v8.0 will allow a chart type to pass parameter values to every other chart on the dashboard if it is designed to do so. Subsequently, this allows use of a ViFrame chart for nothing more than to contain pivots which cascade values. For instance, if a dashboard has two fields (Brand & Hotel), each with a pivot, as the end user selects a Brand from the first pivot then the second pivot will only show Hotels in the Brand selected.

I have set up a simple example with only two fields in which both are pivots (Image Below). One key thing to keep in mind is that this is limited to 3000 records, so take note that there is a count in order to return distinct combinations of the values. Also, please note that the “Update Button” is merely an image used to execute the drilldown, this means that a person could create their own descriptive button if they would like.

In looking at this dashboard, a few other things are apparent that may not have been seen before such as Color Range Sets on a ViFrame. Please feel free to take a look at how it is configured with expressions.

There are many commonly requested features that have viable solutions with a bit of creativity. Many of these solutions have been posted in articles on the iDashboards Support Portal – commonly known as OSKAR. If you have not yet logged into OSKAR, I highly recommend that you do as you may find solutions that address your needs.

Zach Breimayer- Technical Consultant, iDashboards

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Calling All Hoteliers: What is your data doing for you?

I recently returned from a trip to Minneapolis after attending this year’s HITEC show. As an HFTP member (Hospitality Financial & Technology Professionals), it’s always a pleasure to connect with peers and discover what they’re doing at their properties. However, I couldn’t help but notice one underlying and unfortunate vein that ran through almost every conversation I had: “Tom, my company generates an exceptional amount of data, but that data is un-centralized and often inaccessible. I’m swimming in a sea of numbers!”

Within hospitality and lodging/resort management in particular, there is an overabundance of systems which collect and generate data (PMS, POS, CRM, ERP, etc.). However, there is also a concurrent and perplexing lack of systems which will centralize data and facilitate data-driven decisions. Perhaps that’s because no one has taken the time to pioneer such a product, or perhaps, within this arena, the necessity for data to be integrated is so crucial that it’s been too intimidating for anyone to approach. My guess is the latter, and it’s time that changes.

Let’s assume the role of General Manager to explore this further. As GM, it’s not only my responsibility to ensure that day-to-day operations are carried out, but also ensure that my property remains solvent and my brand image is carefully and meticulously maintained well into the future. In order to do that effectively, I need data – data that tells a story. Let’s say that RevPAR is below my benchmarked goal. Do I drop my ADR? Generally, we want to avoid that and find alternative, more creative ways to increase occupancy percentage. But how possible is that if I can’t see data from all areas of my property’s operation? Maybe the best approach would instead be to increase awareness of my property’s additional offerings. Example: Has the spa been fully utilized? Is there an area of my customer base that has not been properly marketed to? Are there untapped revenue streams I could be accessing?

The fact is that within hospitality, we don’t just have data, we have lots of data. That data, however, when put into the right hands and with the right system, can translate to effective and efficient decisions. That’s where dashboards come in. While dashboards aren’t a genie in lamp (although the best dashboarding software will allow you to run predictive analyses), they will provide a way to quickly and easily integrate data from all areas of your company so that even the smallest of decisions in any area can be evidence-based and tied directly to the company’s (rather than just the department’s) overall direction and goals.

You wouldn’t build a hotel without a front door, would you? No one would be able to get in. So why should you build a data system without an efficient means for accessing and understanding what happens behind those doors? Within hospitality, everything we do comes down to one factor: the guest experience. It’s time we make our data just as focused. It’s time for dashboards.

Tom Butler Cloud Account Manager

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Identity Theft

Just a few weeks ago, you may have been known as the resident “Dashboard Designer”. But with the launch of v8.0, your identity has been stolen by a feature called “Dashboard Designer”. Sorry for the late notice if you’ve already ordered new business cards but you are now a “Dashboard Builder”.

Before iDashboards v8.0:

Dashboard Designer = You

After iDashboards v8.0:

Dashboard Designer = Feature

Dashboard Builder = You

The Dashboard Designer is a new and extensive environment offered to end users who want to make changes to the appearance of a dashboard. If you’re already an iDashboards user, you can read up on the details in the updated product documentation. However, I’ll provide an overview of our new frame borders. Frame borders are no longer a technical necessity, but rather an artistic accent. Look at the before-and-after screenshots below. Prior to v8.0, it was a strong suggestion to turn off the visibility of frame borders because they revealed the details how the dashboard was constructed. Now, we have the ability to leverage the frame borders with a variety of colors, thicknesses, and transparencies to further enhance the appearance of the dashboard. The screenshot taken after v8.0 is using a wider (20) frame, set to 100% transparent so the background picture is more prominent.

Here is a cheat-sheet of the different features within the Dashboard Designer. All of the buttons and features have mouse-over descriptions to help you learn the new layout.

Well, I hope you don’t mind your new job title after seeing your replacement. Think of your new title as a promotion!

Ken Rose - Technical Consultant, iDashboards

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April Data Brings May Dashboards

We live in a world of clichés and sayings. I spend over 50% of my time travelling to customer engagements and I hear a lot of regional sayings while teaching people how to visualize their data with iDashboards. And, I recently realized that a saying that is so relevant in my Midwest home this time of year – “April Showers bring May flowers” doesn’t apply in all the different locales where I travel. Plant life is alive and kicking without any April showers in Southern California or Georgia. When I made the statement “April showers bring May flowers” to a group I was training in Southern California I quickly realized they had no point of reference to understand what that meant, because as native Californians they had only seen real showers in early February. And, those showers didn’t seem to result in flowers, the way one begets the other in the Midwest.

So, I realized I needed a new universal cliché to “break the ice” (another cliché…) with the audience I was training. I decided to use a recurring statement I make during training – “It’s all about the data”. Sure, I feel like iDashboards visualizes data better than anybody, but without the data, we’ve got nothing – “It’s all about the data”.

On a recent engagement, a CFO came into the training room and expected to see his investment in dashboard technology pay off. After realizing the data analyst had not prepared the appropriate data to show the CFO any dashboards, I started to put together some staged data, just to show him what we could do if we had the data. He was not impressed. He did, however, acknowledge my comment as he was walking out of the room “It’s all about the data”. Regardless, he was not impressed. However, two days later, at the end of our engagement we were able to show him significant dashboards with his data. He was impressed. I thought to myself “It’s all about the data”. And then I thought, maybe I should trademark my ‘go to’ saying. “It’s all about the data”. Next up are Tshirts and hats. I’ve got big plans.

And, now during my engagement this week my saying has become cliché. How many times have I said “It’s all about the data” this week looking to get acknowledgement, looking for someone to latch on to my soon to be trademarked saying and tell two people, who would tell two more, and so on and so on? As I pondered my floundering soon to be fame, I thought back to the time when I said “April showers bring May flowers” and how that emoted the same empty response from my Southern Cal as my new cliché. And once again I found myself in search of a new catchy ice breaking cliché.

Maybe I need to borrow another cliché and adjust it slightly for the dashboarding environment. Maybe “April data brings May dashboards”? Not catchy enough. Maybe I just need to make my saying more rhythmic, maybe something that rhymes like “showers” and “flowers”. What rhymes with data? Beta? Hmmmm.

So, I’m setting out on a mission to create my next catchy cliché – something that everyone training to create dashboards can relate to.

Here’s a few that I am considering…

“There’s not a custom SQL chance in Excel”.

“You have to grab the bull by the column headers”.

“You have to take it one chart at a time”.

“A picture is worth a thousand lines of data”.

“The early chart gets the data”.

“Let sleeping data lie”.

“Life is a bowl of chart types”.

OK, ok, enough. I’ve got to wave the white chart background here. I think I’ve dug myself into a drilldown. I guess if I can’t stand the heat I better stay out of the dashboard designer…

Jerry Stowe – Technical Consultant, iDashboards

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Data ≠ Wisdom

“Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.” – Clifford Stoll, famous author and astronomer

So what’s the trick? How do we turn data into information and ultimately into wisdom?

We could collect as much data as possible and load it into spreadsheets, but then what? It’s astonishing how easily accessible our data is yet, the relevant information is often overlooked. Have you ever heard the phrase “work smarter, not harder”? Well, that’s exactly what we want to do with our data. We don’t need to waste our time monitoring every indicator, rather we should focus on the essential metrics that affect our performance, quality and profitability.

Storyboarding is a great way to break down your key performance indicators (KPIs) and determine what metrics need greater attention. Let’s say you’ve already went through the storyboarding process and your KPIs have been chosen wisely, but the data still doesn’t translate correctly. This could be explained by a disconnect in data sources, outdated reports, data collusion or numerous other factors. A way to resolve these issues is to implement secure dashboards that unify your data into concise interactive dashboards. Color coded spreadsheets can shed some light but dashboards can bring life to flat reports, connect your data sources, and drilldown into specific KPIs to discover correlations enabling wise, informed decisions based off your data.

Check out the Planning your Dashboard Project Whitepaper for more information regarding KPIs, storyboarding and dashboard implementation.

Alicia Sasse- iDashboards

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“Black Swan”

I’m about half way through a book right now called Black Swan, a book that explores the unknown, the uncertain, and the unexpected. I personally find myself fascinated by mankind’s inability to ever fully comprehend the complexity of a situation, not to mention the ramifications of the decisions we make. It’s an odd concept to step back for a moment and try to think about the results we expect never take to place. How can we be expected to know the unknown, expect the unexpected?

It’s almost an oxymoron, except that often times it’s our own fault. Failure can’t be placed entirely on the inability; we have to start accepting that a lot of what we don’t know is our own fault, our own inability to spend the time and resources analyzing the less obvious. Its not as if we begin things expecting catastrophic events to transpire; wars to erupt, businesses to file for bankruptcy; yet these are issues our civilization has dealt with throughout history and we still choose to assume it’s not going to happen again, not going to last, or at the least be different this time.

Surely there have to be signs in the world, signs we’re ignoring, things we aren’t paying attention to. While we’re busy paying statisticians to conduct polls or collect sample data sets and studying the obvious, we’re also busy ignoring the outliers and casting aside the statistically improbable; the numbers tell us the odds are not in their favor. Yet every catastrophic event could likely be tied to some analysis somewhere that stated that event was an outlier and had little merit, if any. Working in the Business Intelligence space, where quite literally people are trying to anticipate results, has provided a unique opportunity to weigh the “Black Swan” against exactly what it is myself, and our customers are trying to accomplish.

This narrative simply put, is an opportunity to make you think. Not about the obvious, certainly not about which software to buy or what decision to make next but instead to think about what you aren’t thinking about. Take into account the unexpected for a moment, look at something you wouldn’t have otherwise given a second thought to; perhaps the recognition isn’t the same for averting a disaster no one ever knew about, but in the end what’s better, disaster with recognition for repair OR the silent truth of knowing you saw what no one else did and got it right when it really counted?

Jason Wolan- Professional Services Manager, iDashboards

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“Let’s increase the sales, better serve customers and bring efficiency. Yeah right!”

If you are an executive in today’s ever-changing technology environment, it is likely that you are often faced with questions such as, “How will we stay on point with the strategic plans and keep customers happy? Of course businesses know about the social media buzz, but another popular tool that helps businesses achieve tremendous results is dashboard technology.

Over the past several years, dashboard technology has matured and is ready to serve the market demands. Dashboard technology has been proven to be of immense value with great ROI in various sectors such as Finance, Manufacturing, Government, Healthcare, High Tech and so on.

On my recent engagement with a company, I worked with a marketing department and its executive team. Together, they strategized a plan to increase value for customers, create new ways to engage customers, and strengthen the revenue model with minimal impact on the existing business processes. The team came up with a solution to provide a dashboard to the customers. This dashboard would provide various metrics in an easy to understand format. Customers no longer needed to sift through multiple systems to track various aspects of the business viz. sales, billing, usage, tech support etc.

Simple dashboards for customers provide a differentiator from the competition. The marketing and sales team was able to leverage it by winning new business and greater loyalty from existing customers.

The simplicity of the dashboards brought greater value to their customers. The dashboards not only simplified the overall picture for the customers but it also enforced the internal teams’ procedures to align for the single customer entry point into the system through the dashboard software. Teams are now more aware of the impact of their individual performance in relation to the overall impact.

When the dashboard technology is applied, it can certainly produce results.

Do you think dashboards technology can help your organization?

Zahid Ansari – Principal Consultant, iDashboards

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