Data sources for Excel dashboards: avoid spreadsheet hell

This is the first of two twin posts where we’ll discuss the alpha and omega of Excel dashboards: data access and dashboard publication. These are two weak areas in Excel, and they should be approached carefully when planning for a new dashboard. Let’s start by reviewing the available data access options.

Copy / Pasting data

Are you or some one in your organization populating the spreadsheet manually? Or are you copy/pasting the data into the spreadsheet? This is the simplest method of getting data into Excel, but it can be dangerous. It should be avoided when better options are available.

When you are dealing with some kind of structured data management (like you do when you create a dashboard) you have to plan ahead and make sure that when data changes it doesn’t break your well crafted dashboard. Each function, each chart, must know where the data is and adjust for these changes when needed.

When you are pasting data there is a a high risk of break something. The number of rows or columns in the new dataset may change, and things like a time series chart may not recognize the new time periods and probably you’ll have to update references manually. Again, plan carefully or you end up in a maintenance hell.

External table

You can create a link to an external table in Access, Oracle or other database tool via a standard ODBC connection. This will ensure that the data is correctly funneled into the spreadsheet, but with real-world data it is very easy to have more records than the Excel 2003 limit of 65,536 rows. You’ll be better off if you link not to the raw data itself but to a query/view that aggregates the data (one of the basic rules for dashboard design in Excel is to avoid calculations and derivative data; the data should come from the source already prepared to be displayed).

Once the data is in Excel, there is not much difference between this and the previous option. You still need to use use lookup functions to retrieve the data and use it in report tables and charts, and data integrity is a stressful thing that you must ensure all the time. When possible, use database functions like DSUM instead of lookup functions (there will be a post discussing this).

Pivot tables

For an out-of-the-box Excel installation you may want to consider pivot tables. They are an interesting option for smaller datasets and they have a nicely flat initial learning curve. Please note that pivot tables will make your file size much larger because they store all the data in the spreadsheet, so scalability can become a major issue. Also, they work best with a strict hierarchical data structure. If your data doesn’t fit exactly in this concept this may be a problem. If you have a larger dataset you should consider an OLAP cube instead.

OLAP Cubes

The concept of an OLAP cube can be something scary for the average Excel user, but once you start using them you’ll never turn back. Specially of you are using what Charley Kid calls an “Excel-friendly OLAP cube”.

Unlike the other methods, an Excel-friendly OLAP cube (like XLCubed) will not store the data in the spreadsheet, thus eliminating the need for the usual data refreshing methods (open the dashboard, refresh, save and close). The cube is automatically updated and you can query it using formulas similar to GETPIVOTDATA. This makes a huge impact on the way you work. You get all the benefits of a regular pivot table plus several life-saving extras. The dashboard will be simpler, cleaner and easier to maintain.

Final Thoughts

You have several methods for data management in Excel, and you must decide what is the best method for each specific dashboard. Scalability is always an issue, so be sure your data don’t outgrow your chosen method. An Excel-friendly OLAP cube may require some immediate investment but will save you a lot of hassle in the long run.

Data management in Excel is a critical factor, and it will discussed in detail in future posts.

The next post discusses the other end of a dashboard project: how to make the dashboard available to the users.

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