Adding Context to Business Intelligence using Microsoft Power BI and Sway

by Treb Gatte

A fire by itself is neither good nor bad. It’s the context in which it is present that gives it meaning. Fire is good when it is sending us to the stars. It is bad when it is burning down our house.

Data shares the same behavior as fire. Data without context is simply noise. It is the context around the data that provides the ability to accurately interpret the data. Many companies today are struggling with their noise problem as they transition to a data-centric culture. Companies are discovering they have access to more data than ever but without appropriate context, it’s difficult to make the data accessible, understandable, and actionable.

Context is still very subjective and human sourced.

Context knowledge is dependent on individual human memories and personally biased interpretations rather than being codified and made generally accessible. Context may also be hidden away in documents, spreadsheets, and emails.

How context influences decision making

In a data-centric organization, key decisions are strongly influenced by the available data. It is critical that data consumers understand two key points about their BI content.

  • What’s going on with the data?
  • Do I need to do anything about it?

Adding appropriate context around the data should enhance the data consumer’s understanding of those two questions. The context should fill in the problem description and why is it important to the data consumer to understand. This makes the Business Intelligence content more effective as it is focused solely on the “Where are we now?”, “How far away are we from our goal?”,  and “Where are we going?” aspects. Adding context using a different method also makes it much easier to create effective business intelligence content.

Are we adding context or simply making navigation easier?

In our experience, many clients are using the embedding features of Power BI to place content on SharePoint modern pages or within Teams. However, the focus is to make it more convenient to access the BI content rather than enhance understanding by providing more context to the BI content.  This is a missed opportunity to help turn data into knowledge by providing the greater context.

How should we add context?

Traditionally, we add context via personal presentation or via communication channels to a targeted audience. However, with a broader audience having access to data and having 24-hour access, inefficiencies in how the information is propagated becomes apparent. No one wants to get an 11pm email asking for an explanation of some key metrics nor should a person’s understanding of the content be diminished as they aren’t on the right email thread.

Surrounding the BI content with other context setting content seems like a better approach. We want something that will continue to be useful without requiring human interaction. Therefore, the ability to embed a live Power BI report into a document structure is key. Traditional Office products like Microsoft Word and Microsoft PowerPoint only support the inclusion of static screen captures of data from Power BI. The only document product that allows inclusion of live Power BI content is Microsoft Sway.

What is Sway?

To quote Microsoft, “Sway is an easy-to-use digital storytelling app for creating interactive reports, presentations, personal stories and more. Its built-in design engine helps you create professional designs in minutes. With Sway, your images, text, videos, and other multimedia all flow together in a way that enhances your story.” This sounds exactly like what we need to add context to our Power BI content.

Attempt #1

Sway has a card-based editor that allows you to build the various sections like how you would build slides in PowerPoint. In this example, I’m putting together a Sway on the Washington State Measles epidemic.

When you click the plus icon in Sway, one of the options under the Media tab is an Embed option. This looks like the exact thing we need.

Now we got to PowerBI.com, log in, and navigate to our workspace that contains the report to embed. When you are viewing the report, click the ellipsis button, then Embed, Website or portal.

You will see a dialog with two options. You want the full embed code from the bottom field, since Sway will only take an Iframe. Click into the field then press Ctrl + C

In Sway, add the embed card so that it appears as follows.

Paste in the Power BI embed code.

After a few seconds, you will see this error.

Attempt #2

Because this was for internal use, we did not want to use Publish to Web in Power BI. We wanted to use the Embed in a Web Site so that the model stays secured. In experimenting, what we found was that if we removed the height and width information from the embed code, it worked!

The result looked like this. It looked ok but the filter pane and the bottom tabs were not desirable. It didn’t look like Power BI was truly integrated into the Sway.

Attempt #3

After doing some research, we discovered that adding &navContentPaneEnabled=false to the URL would remove the tabs at the bottom. Adding &filterPaneEnabled=false to the URL would remove the filter pane. However, it was also important where you added these in the URL. We had the best luck adding them between the &autoAuth parameter and the &ctid parameter. If you added it at the end of the URL, it didn’t work.

Result

The only tweak we made was that we found the report fit better in Sway if the report canvas was 1280 pixels wide by 605 pixels high. This is a little shorter than normal but Sway uses the vertical space for its navigation underneath.

The result looks like the graphic below.

Conclusion

Using Microsoft Sway with Power BI can be an effective method of adding valuable context to your BI Content without adding clutter to reports and dashboards. Test out the live version below. Scroll left to see the various sections.

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