PowerBI is one of the most flexible ways to visualise data that I’ve seen (it’s just been released as part of the Office 365 service). And, what’s even better for me, is that it uses Excel as the starting point – which means that I’ve already got 90% of the skills needed to work with it. (I know I work at Microsoft, and therefore people expect me to be uber-geeky, but my technical confidence and competence is lower than many around me at the office, so I rate myself as a typical business user of technology, not a power user).

PowerBI PowerMapIt allows you to quickly combine different sources of data (eg Excel spreadsheets, data sources within your organisation, as well as data from the web and from the Azure data market) and create a visualisation – like a conventional line chart or histogram, a scattergram, or interactive maps. To me, the beauty of PowerBI is that I can do this myself – and share what I’ve done with others.

Where I’ve found it really comes alive is when you can combine your internal data with data from other sources. I’ve seen examples of retailers connecting live tweets, foursquare checkins, weather and socio-economic data, connected together with sales data for individual stores. In some countries with strong open data programmes, there’s a wealth of data that would help build powerful analyses, and create data-centric stories.

One good example of visualising open government data came from our recent PowerBI competition, where Chris Webb from the UK used published data about road accidents to see what trends were appearing, and where there were particular patterns in the data.

Chris recorded a video as his entry, that shows how he went from a big set of CSV files to a visual analysis that ended up showing the road accident risk that exists for school children immediately before and after school. Unlike Australia, the UK doesn’t have 40km/h school zones, but perhaps this kind of story-telling with data might create the demand for them.

I’ve been working on creating some visualisations of Australian education data, but it’s a lot more challenging. In higher education there’s a wealth of published data through ABS, the Higher Education Statistics uCube and MyUniversity.gov.au – all of which can be modelled and connected.

But it only works in scenarios where there’s a commitment to open access to data. In the school education sector, it’s a different story – there seems to be a real paucity of publically available data for the sector. On the data.gov.au website, there are just 12 results for datasets on ‘schools’ – and there’s no national data there (and nothing of value relating to learning). Other data sites, like myschool.edu.au are designed to stop people using them to create data visualisations. But am I missing something? Is there a treasure trove of education data that could be visualised, published by the Australian federal or state governments? Or am I going to have to resort to worldwide comparisons using OECD & UNESCO data?

In the meantime, here's an example of using the PowerMap side of PowerBi to map some international education data.