Excel BI Tip #17: Using the Timeline Filter

 

As I mentioned in my original post, Exploring Excel 2013 as Microsoft’s BI Client, I will be posting tips regularly about using Excel 2013 and later.  Much of the content will be a result of my daily interactions with business users and other BI devs.  In order to not forget what I learn or discover, I write it down … here.  I hope you too will discover something new you can use.  Enjoy!

Before I go much further, I wanted to call out an update to this series. I am planning to continue to cover more about Excel and Power BI components in Excel through these tips as we move forward. The focus will continue to be on Excel 2013 and beyond. So look for “sub series” around Power BI tools such as Power Pivot, Power Query, and Power Map as they are now integral parts of the Excel BI story.

Introducing the Timeline Filter

The Timeline Filter is a great visual filtering tool that can be used with pivot tables, pivot charts and data from Analysis Services and Power Pivot. It is the best way to allow users to have “range” query capabilities in Excel. It breaks down a date into Years, Quarters, Months and Days. The Timeline was first released with Excel 2013.

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imageYou can find the Timeline filter in the same area on the ribbons as the Slicer filter or by right-clicking the fields area used with pivot tables and charts. If you have a valid date in your model, the option will be available in this area. However, if you have no valid dates, it will not be available. This is by far the most frustrating part of working with this filter. I will go through what I have discovered about getting a date that can be used with this filter in the next section.

When you can use it, Timeline filters greatly enhance the look and feel and the ease of use for Excel dashboards and analytics.

Getting a “Date” Value the Timeline Can Use

First of all, this will be the most frustrating part of working with this filter. The Timeline requires a date field, not a date dimension. This means that traditional cubes will have the least success working with this feature unless the cube design is modified. Typically, we create date dimensions that use a surrogate key that is a integer data type. Even when we choose to make this a “smart” key (e.g. 20120131 = YYYYMMDD), the value we place in the related fact tables is an integer. However, we often include an actual date as an attribute so there can be workarounds. If you are working with a cube design that has no dates typed as dates, it is likely you will be unable to use this filter.

The key point is that the Timeline must have a date value in order to be implemented. The Timeline will work with any field that is a date.

Adding a Timeline to a Pivot Table

In my example, I will be using a Power Pivot model in Excel. This is not built on a star schema, but the model has a date table that will be used in one of the demos as well. My starting pivot table will be from one table that summarizes polls by state (I am using the MyVote sample data from Modern Apps Live). As you can see in the screenshot below, it has states and the sum of submissions.

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The next step is to add a Timeline filter. If we right-click the PollSubmissionDate field, we will see the option for adding it as a Timeline. image

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Voila! We have a Timeline that works with our pivot table. In the next section, we will break down the parts of the filter and its options.

Timeline Parts and Options

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The Timeline Caption and Header properties affect the same section. In our current Timeline, we have a caption of “PollSubmissionDate” which is the name of the field. This is the default when creating the Timeline. You can change the header by changing the caption. If you do not what to show the header, unselect the Header box in the options.

The other three options also allow you to hide or show features in the Timeline. By default, all of the features are showing.

The Scrollbar is located at the bottom of the Timeline. It allows users to scroll through the available dates in the filter. This is helpful when dealing with a underlying large date range.

The Selection Label is the portion that shows what has been selected in text form. In the example above, you can see that Jan-Feb 2014 has been selected and that is what is shown in the label. I find that this reinforces to the user what they have selected. If the label is not visible, then the bar under the dates is the only way to see what has been selected and that is not always clear to users.

The last option that can be turned on or off is the Time Level. This is the drop down list that shows Years, Quarters, Months, and Days. This can be used to change the granularity of the selection bar. Depending on the implementation, you may want to limit the Timeline to a particular view. However, if you are using this dynamically and the data exists to support all of those levels, then you are best served giving users the option to select the granularity of the selection bar.

The truly “cool” feature is the selection bar. Users can “grab” the edges to expand or contract the range of dates they wish to see. As they change the granularity with the time level, they are able to select days, months, quarters, or years. This truly allows for dynamic range filtering which has typically been very difficult to implement in a simple fashion in Excel.

Connecting the Filter to a Second Pivot Table

As with slicers, we can have the Timeline filter apply to multiple objects in the workbook through Report Connections. Let’s add another pivot table and try to apply the date and you will see the issue. In this example, we are adding the PollResponseCount from the PollResponse table with the ResponseDate.

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By right-clicking the ResponseDate, I am able to confirm that it is a candidate for a Timeline filter. Let’s see if we can create a connection with our Timeline filter.

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As you can see in our example, by adding PivotTable2 from Sheet1 we have filtered the data in the second pivot table. The data is now limited to the January and February of 2014. Of course, we should change our caption now as the filter will apply to multiple data sets and different date fields.

Post Publication Update from Chris Webb (@technitrain). There are additional limitations when using the Timeline filter with SSAS multidimensional. See Teo Lachev’s blog post on the topic.

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