(Original Article of idealware)
There are a number of ways to create dashboards, including using such common tools such as Excel or Access, or proprietary systems embedded in databases. But these approaches can lead to dashboards that are not very user-friendly and difficult to update.
Business Intelligence tools, or “BI” tools, take the dashboard idea to the next level. More than simply graphically displaying static data, they offer trend analysis, forecasting and drill-down capabilities that can dramatically expand your insight into program performance. With a good BI tool, you can combine data from multiple sources, view it from different perspectives and distribute it more easily. Beyond simple reporting, BI tools allow a more comprehensive analysis of your organization’s data1.
A Few Good BI Tools
There are a number of BI tools on the market, with new ones being developed all the time. More and more of these systems are adopting web-based platforms or using in-memory technology, which means they offer increased accessibility and responsiveness over installed systems, but can suffer when scaling to very large datasets, and require a fast, consistent internet connection. These tools tend to be less expensive than other types, but these are all complex systems that will require someone with data expertise to set up and maintain.
GoodData’s cloud-based platform offers great visuals, a very fast data engine, and data pivoting—a quick way of summarizing data based on different variables—from multiple data-sets updated in near real-time. The tool offers canned reports, which might not apply to all nonprofits, and adds a reports-and-dashboards sharing feature for easy collaboration among colleagues. GoodData’s tool is very quick to deploy, but setting up and administering the data model can require more technical expertise, and accessing the data using a cloud-based user interface requires a solid and consistent internet connection. If you’re looking for a cloud-based solution that allows quick ad-hoc analysis and have some more technical people on staff, this is a great option.
iDashboards is a very slick data visualization tool that allows organizations to monitor and analyze their programs while also creating “what if” scenarios for strategic planning. The user interface does more than just look good; it allows staff to personalize individual dashboards with very little training. A built-in wizard helps facilitate its connection to multiple data sources and automatic refreshes every minute. If your organization wants staff to create personalized dashboards with great visualizations for analysis and planning, iDashboards might be a good fit. (The vendor offers discounted licensing and training for nonprofits.)
Birst is an extremely powerful and flexible tool with a responsive interface that stores data in-memory or on-disk, which allows it to scale quickly while easily performing sophisticated calculations with very large datasets. Birst comes pre-packaged with standard reports; these might not meet the needs of most nonprofits, but the tool does allow end-users to make quick Excel-like calculations on their own. Setup is comparatively easy due to Birst’s new graphical interface for logical modeling and “data warehouse automation technology,” which automatically creates a data scheme. Birst is a great option for mid-sized to large nonprofits with dedicated IT staff who are working with a lot of data and seeking scalability and flexibility in deployments.
QlikView is a tool that is quick to deploy and relatively easy to administer. The tool is designed for exploration of data by leveraging their “associative model” that allows users to click on a piece of data and see all relevant data associated with it. This type of visualization is perfect for analytical end users who might not have a pre-defined question. QlikView is also very fast; the tool uploads and compresses your data in its memory to allow for very quick analysis and drill-down performance. Organizations should expect to send their IT staff to training as the complex tool does use propriety scripting, a unique interface design tool and management console. If you’re looking for a tool that is quick to deploy, looks great, is cost-effective and very fast, and have a strong IT staff prepared to attend a week of training, QlikView is an excellent option. QlikView provides the software free to nonprofits, including training and consulting. (http://www.qlikview.com/us/company/community-service)
Tableau can run straight from your database with no additional modeling required, assuming that all the data you want to report on is in a single database. This allows for very quick deployments—just five clicks—if your current data structure is sufficient. Organizations can also choose to re-build their data models in-memory. Because everyone knows that “a picture is worth 1,000 words,” Tableau used that concept as the basis for its product; the tool is extremely visual, allowing organizations to quickly see their data when answering questions. The tool’s proprietary language, VizQL, quickly translates your data into graphics that can be manipulated in the drag and drop interface. Tableau provides all of its training materials online for free, and hosts regular webinars to keep everyone up to date. Tableau is an excellent fit for organizations that do not have large IT departments, but are looking for a tool that offers a strong visualization suite and quick deployment.