With GeoFlow, Microsoft doubles-down on analytics in Excel

At the PASS Business Analytics Conference in Chicago, Microsoft announces a public preview of GeoFlow and pumps Excel as the hub for data discovery.
Written by Andrew Brust, Contributor on

While Gartner and IDC are busy discussing Microsoft's losing ground in the consumer market to Apple and Google, maybe they should consider discussing the gains Microsoft is making against its competitors in the business analytics space.

During the opening keynote at the PASS Business Analytics conference today, Microsoft Technical Fellow Amir Netz and Director of Program Management for Business Intelligence, Kamal Hathi, were busy showing off the kind of data discovery work that business users can do inside Excel.  

Disclosure: I am a speaker at the PASS Business Analytics Conference and was involved in its early planning.

8-bit beginnings
Netz came to Microsoft from Israeli BI company Panorama, when the former acquired technology from the latter that would become SQL Server Analysis Services. Netz told the story, complete with photos, of growing up in Israel, being given an Apple II computer by his parents, and becoming fascinated with data and spreadsheets.  He started with VisiCalc, and eventually began running his own business doing macro programming for Lotus 1-2-3. Soon enough, Netz moved on to Excel, on the Mac.

Netz and Hathi discussed the simplicity of these tools and contrasted that simplicity with today's analytics landscape of DW, ROLAP, MOLAP, ETL, MDM, Hadoop, Hive, Pig, Sqoop, NoSQL and more. The two men explained in a tongue-and-cheek, if somewhat contrived, manner how they yearned for the data tech simplicity of earlier times.

Data idol
And so back to the spreadsheet we went, as Netz and Hathi used Excel 2013, with PowerPivot, Power View and Data Explorer, to go through reams of Billboard chart data and expose interesting factoids about popular music.  Along the way, we discovered that Rihanna has single-handedly brought Barbados into the top tier of pop music countries, and that Roxette is Sweden's best pop ensemble, as far as Billboard chart showings go. (I bet you thought it was ABBA; I know I did.) 

The last phase of the Microsoft duo's demo? An announcement that the company's project "GeoFlow," a 3D geographical data visualization add-in for Excel, is now available as public preview. GeoFlow mashes up Bing Maps and technology from Microsoft Research to render data in time-lapsed, geographic space. Netz demoed the impressive technology and, as a kicker, did so on what looked to be an 80" Perceptive Pixel touch-screen display, morphing the keynote stage into a quasi news studio.

Fun with data
Netz also talked about the importance of making data fun, and showed how visualizations built in Excel can be shared online, on Office 365. In so doing, he alluded to the same emotional, social approach to data discovery that Tableau has built its entire business on, a business it now aims to take public.

The PowerPivot, Data Explorer and now GeoFlow add-ins are available for download. Just be aware that GeoFlow requires the "ProPlus" version of Excel 2013 (via volume license, or an Office 365 subscription that provides access to that version of Excel.) Does this put a damper on Microsoft's "BI for the Masses" story? I'd say so, and I'm hoping some other folks will as well.

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