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Power BI from Information and Library Science

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Guest post by Elizabeth Hannah on her recent community visit to the Evidence-Based Library and Information Practice Conference in Glasgow, 2019.

For the last few days, I have been attending the EBLIP10 (Evidence-Based Library and Information Practice) conference at the University of Strathclyde. As a recent Information and Library Science grad, I put myself down as a student volunteer so I could sit in on some of the sessions for free (and eat the fancy lunches – they had vegan tacos, so you could imagine the position I was in).

As you can maybe imagine, a large amount of the talks were library-centred; targeted at librarians who want to implement a more evidence-based practice in their workplace, or researchers looking to improve their methods. I was fortunate enough to attend some fascinating lectures that I may otherwise have never thought much about, and get to know some lovely and interesting information professionals from all over the world, from Portugal to Canada to Mexico.

One of the speakers, Louise Graham from the Scottish Library and Information Council, spoke on the importance of evidence of impact in public libraries. Describing the process her and her team had gone through in implementing new technology throughout Stirling Council Libraries to work on quantifying evidence of how patrons benefited from using their local public library, Graham spoke on the complexities and benefits of user-friendly data collection. Stirling Council Libraries now have a collection of touch-screen devices in their libraries that allow patrons to outline their feelings about and experiences of the library, largely via simple visuals. If a patron wanted to convey to the staff that their favourite thing about their library was the space to sit down and read in a quiet environment, they would tap on a picture of a person reading a book on a sofa. The platform was designed to be as accessible as possible to everyone who wanted to use it, and it resulted in hundreds of submissions within the first few weeks, and a wealth of evidence for the librarians to have to hand if they ever needed to defend their library.

At this time, especially here in the UK, there are few things more important to librarians – especially public librarians – than having concrete evidence of the impact they have on the societies they serve. With funding cuts and closures happening left and right, evidence-based practice has never been more needed.

However, one thing I learned from attending EBLIP10 was that there are so many different ways to collect and display evidential data. As many of the speakers at the conference were researchers, PhD students and lecturers, a lot of this data was displayed via published papers in academic journals. But this medium isn’t usable for everyone – and certainly not those of us who are not in academia. Since I’ve started working recently as a Data Translator for Data Relish, and am currently working on training programs for Power BI, it got me thinking – are there ways that we can use Power BI to effectively and accessibly display evidence of our work?

When it came to making evidence easily-accessible, particularly for our colleagues and customers who may not have been involved in the rest of the process, my first thought was Power BI Service and the Power BI mobile app. Operating the full desktop version of Power BI may not be the most efficient way to quickly demonstrate that your work has yielded tangible results – when you’re looking for an in-depth analysis, it’s the ideal option for sure, but sometimes what you need is a clear, visually-appealing display of your data that a customer or less-experienced colleague can pull up quickly and understand at a glance.

This is the beauty of the Power BI Dashboard, in all its forms; it’s evidence of your results that anyone can understand – and enjoy looking at – regardless of whether or not they’re an experienced data scientist. And if you want clear evidence of how your work is going well, or helping others, you can’t make it so dense and complex that only a data scientist will be able to parse it. Your stakeholders are more likely to want to see your evidence represented in clear visuals.

Many of the speakers at the conference, while their presentations were clear and effective, presented the results of their studies in tables, and long lists of data. This was fine for those of us who were at the conference in person – we could see the slides up close, so it was easy enough to get an idea of what the data was representing. But the small text that came with fitting long lists on one PowerPoint slide caused a few problems.

Part of my job as a volunteer was to manage the virtual conferencing. Virtual attendees watched the presentations via webcam, and it was my job to mute and unmute them, convey their questions to the speaker, and straighten out any issues as best I could. The biggest problem by far that I had to tackle was the virtual attendees being unable to read the small text; many of them completely missed out on any visual representation of the speakers’ findings. The webcam wouldn’t pick up the text – at a conference on evidence-based practice, they were missing out on the actual evidence! And making me so frazzled I had to go and stress-eat a bunch of tacos behind the reception desk!

There’s no doubt in my mind that many of these findings could have been improved if the speakers had had a tool like Power BI at their disposal. Had they been able to turn their long lists of data into representative visuals, everyone would have been able to understand it at a glance, rather than squint at their screens and try to read some under-pixelated numbers.

Power BI could be a strong tool for research, particularly research where concrete evidence is paramount – and particularly research where those findings will be helpful and interesting to those outside your immediate professional circle. Some of the available visualizations look lovely, and can make even the drier data look more engaging.

Power BI is a perfect way to tailor the presentation of your findings to your audience, and there seem to be few corners of the professional world where it wouldn’t come in handy.

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