Using the New Shape Maps in Microsoft PowerBI
Could the new Map Shapes visualisation be a game-changer for PowerBI? I’m going to look at what the new feature does, and why it could well be.
Although this is, I think, the first time I’ve written about Microsoft’s PowerBI, anyone who knows me personally will know I’ve been a huge fan, following its progress as it’s matured from a very beta-esque product (even when it was formally out of Beta) to a feature rich BI platform.
There have been two particular reasons the product has stood out for me
- The extreme simplicity to use – even for those not all that familiar with data modelling – though still provides rich data modelling features
- Microsoft’s approach to the development cycle. Significant updates are released monthly (with smaller updates released most weeks), and are active within the PowerBI community to understand how people want to use the product, and use this as a major contributor to their development roadmap
One of the newest features released (in Preview) really epitomizes both of these – Shape Maps.
On the face of it, Shape Maps sounds similar to the ‘Map’ and ‘Filled Map’ visuals – and whilst there are some similarities, Shape Maps has the potential to be much more.
Maps is all about using geographical data, and representing it on a real map. Essentially, Lat/Long data, but it accepts cities, post codes etc which it geocodes.
Shape Maps instead divides a ‘map’ into zones. Eg, the counties in Europe, or the States in the US. Each ‘zone’ is then assigned a matching data-point and the entire zone is represented as a single entity.
Creating a Shape Map
To enable the Shape Maps, you must first have the latest version of the PowerBI Desktop Programme, and have enabled the visualisation via the Preview Features screen
(File à Options & Settings à Options à Preview Features)
As a basic example, I’ve create a simple Shape Map showing the life expectancy in each of the 4 countries in the United Kingdom – the darker the shade, the higher the life expectancy. You can, of course, control the shading colours used.
Clicking any country / ‘zone’, will zoom you in on that zone – useful for larger maps such as the US – and hovering over will give you the detail.
Creating a shape map couldn’t be simpler.
I started with some basic data, which I loaded into PowerBI
Click the Shape Map visual to add an empty visual.
Drag your country field to the ‘Location’ bin, and Life Expectancy to the ‘Values’ bin
Nothing will appear to happen, but select the ‘Format’ option
And you will see a section called ‘Shape’
Expand this, and you will see a list named ‘Standard Maps’, which will give you a list of the pre-defined maps. I’m using UK
And that’s it – your map is created. OF course you can tweak & tune as you wish – I changed base colours for the min & max so the lowest value didn’t show as white.
If you’re not sure what labels to use, there is a Map Key you can use, though it only seems to be accessible via the Web version currently – hopefully this will be fixed for Desktop soon. Select the map, Format à Shape section. ‘View map Keys…’
From what I can gather, either of those headings will work fine.
What next for Shape Maps?
Now, why do I think this is such a great feature?
You’ll see that the list of available Shape Maps in fairly limited. I’m sure Microsoft will add to these over time, but more importantly, they indicated that they make it possible for users to create and submit their own 3rd party maps – in the same way entire visualisations are created by 3rd parties.
And this excites me. Because it’s almost certain that we’ll see (be it official or 3rd party) maps that extend beyond simple Geographic spaces. Think store layouts, concert hall layouts, the human body, football fields etc.
In fact, there is already a 3rd party visualisation which can achieve this – I’ve had a fair play with it myself, and is fantastic – the potential is huge, but isn’t great for a novice – they’re quite fiddly to set up and get working.
Going back to my original USP for PowerBI – simplicity. Make it simple, and people will use is, and find novel ways to use it.