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Inside Power Map’s Latest Update

September 25, 2013 | By Microsoft blog editor

Posted by Curtis Wong, principal researcher

New York City visualization

It’s been an amazing journey for the past 30 months, developing the ideas and prototypes that made the case to start up Project “GeoFlow,” now called Power Map, with the help of the Startup Business Group (SBG) within Microsoft. SBG helped to provide some of the resources for hiring the development, design, and test teams, and Office provided program-management resources to ensure that what we developed would integrate well with Excel. The 3-D visualization technology has become a key piece, along with Power View, of the business-intelligence capabilities of Power BI in Excel.

The team was small, but each member was excited about what we were building. I had spent a lot of time exploring the different kinds of functionality for what the product should do by using the visual-experience engine that powered the WorldWide Telescope. It was extremely useful for me to be able to show specifically how a feature could work with different representations and data types, which made it easier for everyone to have a shared understanding of a feature. That enabled the program managers to gain a deep understanding of the features when writing a spec and helped the development team understand the best way to build it.

As with any project with time and budget constraints, we would prioritize features based on importance to core functionality and the required level of work to build it. Sometimes, my favorite features would get pushed out because we just didn’t have time in the schedule, and it would just have to get saved for a future release.

It’s been almost six months since I left being “embedded” in the Power Map team when it “graduated” from being an incubation team to be fully integrated within the Office Excel team. I’ve returned to Microsoft Research to continue doing more exploration of ideas, helping the future of products, such as Power Map, evolve. It’s been particularly exciting to see how that extremely talented team has been able to execute on enhancing each of the core pillars of the product in my absence and deliver some of my favorite features that once looked like they wouldn’t make it into the product.

The team has greatly simplified the process of mapping the data to one click! In April, when the preview of Power Map, still called GeoFlow at that time, became available, users had to designate which of the table columns contained the location info that would be used to geocode the data. For complete novices, this might have been a point of confusion but as part of the updates announced today, the team has enabled Power Map to recognize the appropriate geocoding automatically and then select the right data, plot it on a map, and zoom in the camera to show that data! This is all done by one click on the Power Map button. Is that automagic or what? Another new, amazing feature is the user’s ability to choose to plot data on a flat map or a globe, whichever representation works best. I love going back and forth looking at a flat map showing data on all the countries of the world and then clicking on Map/Globe button and seeing the flat map wrap itself into a 3-D globe with 3-D data columns plotted on it. It’s amazing.

These new updates have added functionality around discovering insights. The Power Map team always has monitored closely early feedback from customers and used that to examine potential points of confusion or suggest needed enhancements. A popular requested feature is geopolitical regions—ZIP code, county, state, country/region—which is now available. The geocoding of regions such as postal codes or counties is done automatically, and the geographic boundaries make it easy to visualize and compare data for each region. A big shout out to Bing Maps for providing the data behind this and being a great collaborator with this project for years and an exemplar of the One Microsoft goal long before the mantra took hold. That team has done terrific work and contributed to the beautiful Earth style guides in Power Map.

The Power Map goal of sharing stories now has expanded by enabling the creation of beautiful videos of a guided tour by just clicking one button, Create Video, which gives you a choice of three resolutions, ranging from full HD to tablet-sized SD, at a resolution appropriate for mobile devices. These videos can be posted to social-media sites and shared so everyone can see the beautiful work that you’ve done. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another application that can do all of these things as easily or as beautifully. Kudos to the Power Map team for what it has been able to accomplish. The members of that team have gone way beyond what I ever thought was possible in this first release, but that’s totally because of the talent and dedication of each and every person on that team. It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of that, and I can’t wait for the final release!