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«Paper SAS1800 - 2015 How to Tell the Best Story with Your Data Using SAS® Visual Analytics Graph Builder Travis Murphy, SAS Institute Inc. ABSTRACT ...»

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Paper SAS1800 - 2015

How to Tell the Best Story with Your Data Using SAS® Visual Analytics

Graph Builder

Travis Murphy, SAS Institute Inc.


How do you engage your report viewer on an emotional and intellectual level and tell the story of your

data? You create a perfect graphic to tell that story using SAS® Visual Analytics Graph Builder. This

paper takes you on a journey by combining and manipulating graphs to refine your data’s best possible story. This paper shows how layering visualizations can create powerful and insightful viewpoints on your data. You see how to create multiple overlay graphs, single graphs with custom options, data-driven lattice graphs, and user-defined lattice graphs to vastly enhance the story-telling power of your reports and dashboards. Some examples of custom graphs covered in this paper are resource timelines combined with scatter plots and bubble plots to enhance project reporting, butterfly charts combined with bubble plots to provide a new way to show demographic data, and bubble change plots to highlight the journey your data has traveled. This paper stretches your imagination and showcase the “art of the possible” and will take your dashboard from mediocre to miraculous. You will definitely want to share your creative graph templates with your colleagues in the global SAS® community.


This paper is aimed at SAS® Visual Analytics users who create and design reports and dashboards for their users. Managers can also use this paper to get an idea of what their teams can create and design with SAS® Visual Analytics.


A colleague called me over one day in 2014 to talk me through the following visualization as he prepared for a modernization roadshow event in Australia’s capital, Canberra. He said to me, “This is neat, and a great example of the power of SAS/GRAPH® software” Figure 1. SAS/GRAPH® Generated Graph – Canada Population Distribution (Source: US Census, 2014) He went on to explain to me that each selected year is represented by a line and you can see the pattern of age by gender for Canada over time and for the projected future. He had created one of these visualizations for about 10 different countries across the globe. He was showing the behavior of these populations versus the world events as part of his roadshow presentation. My response to my colleague was, “I agree; it is a great visual. I will try to create this using the new custom graph builder in SAS®

Visual Analytics.” Less than an hour later, I had the following visualization:

Figure 2. SAS® Visual Analytics Custom Graph Example – Canada Population Distribution (Source: US Census, 2014) Although not a copy of the original graph, I think the graph from SAS® Visual Analytics delivers on the goal and provides a great way to look at gender information over time.

Bubble size adds an additional variable to be analyzed; in this example it is the population percentage.

This use of the SAS® Visual Analytics started me on a quest to twist SAS® Visual Analytics into many shapes, colors, and styles and to tell the best story with my data. There are many quotations about data visualization (from many people smarter than I) that espouse the value in seeing patterns in your data.

Looking for exceptions is easier with easy-to-consume visuals. From my experience in working with customers to implement scorecard projects, dashboard projects, and data warehouses, I believe that the true value in these projects is that the business teams and the executive get to see and interact with their data. They know the best story to tell from their data, because they know the subject matter and the primary business problems that needed to be solved or supported with this information. In this paper you get practical examples and you see that the custom graph builder in SAS® Visual Analytics provides you with more options to tell the best story with your data.


The famous mathematician John Tukey once said, “The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see.” (Tukey, 1977, p. iv) This quotation captures the spirit of telling the best story your data can tell. This concept is not new, and is not just about how “flashy” something is. In fact, it is not essential that the graph be attractive; rather, the story or insight it brings to us is much more important.

Traditionally, analysts have required tabular data. However, as data volumes have become much larger, the amount of data is too large to make sense of by scanning a table of data. In recent years, data visualization software has been developed to assist with the shift to telling stories with the data and getting insight that was previously unattainable. SAS® Visual Analytics has multiple use cases that range from big data discovery to big data dashboards. It helps many organizations design and deliver information products to their business teams in record time. A cookie-cutter approach to deliver reports based on the data can take you only so far. Your visualization software needs to be flexible, yet simple, to adapt to your story. SAS® Visual Analytics provides great features to help you tell the best story with your data, including animations to bring the data to life, analytics to gain additional insight, and the custom graph builder, which is the focus of this paper. All of these features enable the business user to craft a powerful visualization for the data and to unlock the value of the data.

There are many papers written about the best colors and the most powerful positions for graph elements to use in reports, to ensure maximum impact. I leave these topics to the experts in psychology and design. This paper targets users and managers who want to get the most from the SAS® Visual Analytics software.


SAS® Visual Analytics provides true self-service, which is the key to creating a culture of analytics. SAS® Visual Analytics enables your business teams to tell a story with their data. Users can prototype quickly, and can collaborate and share insights with easy-to-use, drag-and-drop functionality on data of any size.

SAS® Visual Analytics is business intelligence software that transforms your data into insight that can be acted upon. It can be challenging for an organization to choose a reporting solution that leaves room to mature and grow into more advanced use of analytics. SAS® Visual Analytics provides users with data visualizations that are underpinned with analytics.

As business users start to solve business problems with analytics, their skills grow. Although many users are satisfied with learning to use basic analytics, others embrace the analytic and data mining capabilities available to users of a broader SAS solution such as SAS® Visual Statistics. You can enable your business to move from reactive decisions to proactive decisions with SAS® Visual Analytics.

SAS® Visual Analytics provides a complete set of tools so that anyone across your organization can derive insight from all available data, as shown in Figure 3. With easy to use, drag-and-drop features, SAS® Visual Analytics incorporates very clear and effective explanations of powerful analytic functions, including correlation analysis, forecasting, text analysis, decision trees, and more to give business users a full understanding of the relationships within their data.

Insights created using SAS® Visual Analytics can be quickly shared via the web, email, and mobile devices. SAS is enabling information sharing and deeper analysis for a wide range of information consumers including executives, business users, data scientists, managers, and analysts.

Figure 3. SAS® Visual Analytics: Capability Overview


The SAS® Visual Analytics Graph Builder is an application included with SAS® Visual Analytics. It enables users to create custom graph objects, which can be used when designing reports using the SAS® Visual Analytics Designer. With the report designer, you can build reports that can tell a better story with your data. Notice that the custom graph builder is not shown in Figure 3. It is best to consider it a configuration extension to the designer. Not every user creates custom graphs, but many do use these custom graphs in creating their reports and dashboards. Users can use the custom graph builder to change the layout, modify data roles and settings, and add new graphs to an existing graph (as a layer or in a grid design), as shown in Figure 5. You do not associate real data when you design the graph in the custom graph builder. Rather, you design a template object that can be used with your real data when you are designing your report using the report designer as shown in Figure 4 below. Using the custom graph builder, the report designers can create precise graphs for the business teams to interact with and tell stories with the data.

–  –  –


SAS® Visual Analytics 6.2 included an undocumented shortcut to invoke the early version of a custom graph builder. Although this was preproduction, it showed where SAS was heading with this feature.

SAS® Visual Analytics 6.3 included the first official release of custom graph builder. This version was a great first step to allow editing of graph objects. It included some graphs that were not included in the default list of graphs in the report designer. SAS® Visual Analytics 6.4 and 7.1 brought more graphs and properties for the user to set, and added a graph gallery for a quick start option for users. These new features make the custom graph builder more flexible and easier to access and use. Users can be more productive, faster. Other components of SAS® Visual Analytics such as the SAS® Mobile BI application and the SAS® Add-In for Microsoft Office are also ready to display custom graphs. The custom graph builder is now an integral part of SAS® Visual Analytics, and it is ready to assist you in delivering creative and informative visualizations.

Last year, Ravi Devarajan wrote a great overview of the custom graph builder in SAS® Visual Analytics 6.3. (See Recommended Reading.) This is a great reference, along with the online SAS® Visual Analytics: User’s Guide, which provides a better understanding of all the elements within the custom graph builder. This paper builds on that overview by combining some of the use cases I have found for the custom graph builder in later releases.


You can now access the custom graph builder from the icon at the top of the Objects tab in the SAS® Visual Analytics report designer, as seen in Figure 6 below. Access to the custom graph builder is controlled by security in SAS® Visual Analytics. The capability that controls access to the graph builder is Build Custom Graph and can be assigned at the role level, just like many capabilities in SAS® Visual Analytics.

Figure 6. SAS® Visual Analytics Report Designer: Objects Tab with Icon to Create a New Custom Graph This method is one of multiple ways to launch the custom graph builder application.

When you are first opening the custom graph builder, the latest release now provides a quick-start graph gallery window, as seen in Figure 7. This graph gallery places the custom graphs into categories for easy access. These categories provide the structure for the rest of this paper, because they provide a logical way to discuss the graphs and their attributes. The graph gallery also provides a great shortcut to getting more from the custom graph builder.

Figure 7. SAS® Visual Analytics Custom Graph Builder: Graph Gallery The graph gallery groups common templates together and provides quick-start points to build from.

The graphs in the gallery are grouped into the following types: Single Graph, Multiple Overlay Graphs, DataDriven Lattice Graphs, and User-Defined Lattice Graphs. You can always start with a blank canvas to create your own masterpiece. In past releases, you had to create everything from a blank canvas, which meant it was harder to get started with the custom graph builder. The graph gallery is a welcome enhancement to the custom graph builder.


You can access any custom graphs via the show or hide objects option in the report designer. You can select or remove the required objects from the Objects tab, and add custom graphs as you need to with the select custom option, as seen below in Figure 8. In the latest release of SAS Visual Analytics you can also show some default custom graphs that are available in the graph gallery, such as the vector plot, schedule chart, or the comparative time series plot.

Figure 8. SAS® Visual Analytics Report Designer: Show or Hide Objects Any custom graph template you create automatically shows in the report designer objects if it is saved to your My Folder location.

This feature provides a really quick prototyping flow. You can develop, save, and then switch quickly to the report designer to see your data within your custom graph.

The following example steps you through adding a custom graph to use in the report designer. In this example, if you just want to accept the defaults of one of the existing graphs in the gallery, you can go to the show/hide menu and add the Bubble Change Plot, as shown in Figure 8. This bubble change plot is useful to show the data journey from beginning to end, and it tells a story about relative performance. For example, you might be interested in comparing last month’s sales to this month’s sales. The bubble change plot can show the sales figures for both months and the direction of the change.

Figure 9. SAS® Visual Analytics – Report Designer – Objects Tab and Report Canvas Even though you have not set any custom properties in this example, this graph is still leveraging the features of the custom graph builder.

The bubble change plot consists of three graphs layered together: a vector plot and two bubble plots, as you can see above in Figure 9.

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