Power BI in schools - how can you report on data from multiple MIS databases?
The real challenge for any school that wants to use a tool like Microsoft Power BI to analyse and report on data is how to get at data that is spread across different application databases - you want a solution that doesn’t involve lots of copy and pasting between different spreadsheets.
In schools data is spread across student record systems, curriculum planning software, finance applications and other systems. Multi-academy trusts make the challenge even bigger - trustees want to drill into data that has come from more than one school.
How can you solve this problem? What are the technologies that can give a school an affordable, flexible and sustainable data reporting solution?
Here are three broad approaches:
Approach 1 (probably the ideal)
Key features -
- Develop a cloud based reporting database in Microsoft Azure (Microsoft's cloud hosting solution). The database sits between your source databases and Power BI. It’s organised in a way to make reporting easier - the tables in the database give a simpler, more consolidated view of important data.
- Use Microsoft’s data connectors to link source application databases to the reporting database. It may then be possible to do almost real-time updates.
- Point Power BI at the reporting database - that connection is straightforward.
- Build interactive dashboards in Power BI Desktop and share them with the online Power BI service.
- It may not be possible to connect directly to some of you software application databases - your software vendor may simply not allow it.
- A trust with say 4 schools and 3 different applications in each school needs - worst case scenario - 12 different connections; technically possible but the amount of effort required might make the solution too expensive.
Approach 2 (more manual maintenance because for some reason you can't connect directly to your source databases)
Key features -
- Build the cloud based reporting database as in Approach 1.
- Export data from your application databases as .csv or Microsoft Excel files.
- Import the .csv files into the reporting database - scripts can be developed to do this automatically, whenever the .csv files are changed.
- Point Power BI Desktop at the reporting database and build your reports.
- There’s a manual step in this approach. Somebody’s got to get the reports out of the source applications everytime the reporting database has to be updated.
Approach 3 (potentially spreadsheet hell but maybe a first step and good for prototyping)
Key features -
- Don’t have a reporting database - miss this step out.
- Export spreadsheets from your application databases and import them straight into Power Bi Desktop.
- Build reports and dashboards in Power BI.
- A lot of manual effort - takes time.
- Using Power BI Desktop to report across multiple imported spreadsheets becomes more difficult - it is much harder to keep track of how up to date things are.
A real world solution might be a combination of all three approaches. And you’d need help from a software developer, particularly for approaches 1 & 2. A final point to make is that it totally makes sense to build a reporting solution like this in phases - start with some prototype dashboards, prioritise your data sources and add new ones over time.