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Metabase: A Power BI alternative that’s perfect for digital signage

Whether you’re interested in its free, self-hosted deployment or its paid cloud option, there are plenty of reasons to use Metabase for business intelligence dashboards.

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No matter how obsessively you clean and organize your company database, it will eventually become messy and bloated. You’ll add new tables, columns, and, of course, hundreds and hundreds of records. What was once easy to analyze and query will become unwieldy and inscrutable. Inevitably, you’ll gravitate toward software that promises to turn your ever-growing database into high-level summaries and visualizations.

What is business intelligence software?

Business intelligence (BI) software simplifies the process of analyzing large datasets to reveal insights and trends related to sales, marketing, customer support, and other revenue-related categories. 

Typically that journey begins by connecting your BI tool to all of your databases or data warehouses to aggregate information from multiple sources. Then, guided by AI, templates, or simple trial and error, you’ll search for the most relevant correlations and tendencies to inform current and future business planning.

In most cases, the most important output of a BI tool is a business intelligence dashboard that shows real-time updates of a company’s most important KPIs and metrics. No matter how large or ungainly a database becomes, BI software can distill everything down into charts, graphs, and numbers that summarize the current situation.

While there are countless data analytics tools available today, business intelligence software is a smaller, niche subcategory. For one, it’s optimized for organizational and financial data. But another way it sets itself apart is with features and interfaces that enable those without data science backgrounds to create and share reports and dashboards.

The most popular BI tools are monthly subscriptions like Microsoft’s Power BI (starting at $10/month) and Salesforce’s Tableau (starting at $75/month). But there are several free, open-source options that are great entry points for smaller teams and organizations. Metabase is one of our favorites. And if the self-hosted route is too much work or upkeep, there are paid cloud-based plans. Either way, it’s a terrific tool for consolidating performance data and sharing it – especially on digital signage.

How to create business intelligence dashboards in Metabase

One of the main things that sets Metabase apart is that it’s an open-source BI tool with options for free self-hosting or a paid SaaS. With the latter, all you need to do is sign up, pick your plan, and choose your hosting region. The free self-hosted version requires a few more steps to get started but isn’t nearly as difficult as you’d expect.

You can run local deployments of Metabase in a Docker container or a Java runtime environment. Both are available on Metabase’s OSS download page. We found the Docker route a bit simpler, but it does require higher system specs. Just download and install Docker Desktop (you’ll also need Git and VScode if you want to interact with Docker via CLI). 

Although Metabase’s documentation recommends booting up a container from the command line with `docker pull metabase/metabase:latest`, we found it easier to simply search for the image from Docker’s in-app discovery bar along the top of the screen. Find metabase/metabase, click Run, and open the Optional settings. If you’re going to show your BI dashboard on cloud-based digital signage, your Metabase container will need an SSL certificate, which might affect the port it runs on, so set that accordingly. Once it’s up and running, click the three vertical dots next to the container and select Open with browser.

From that point on, a self-hosted deployment of Metabase is virtually identical to the SaaS option. You provide some basic onboarding information and point to your database. That might be an externally facing address or a Docker volume that stores your database and is accessible to your Metabase container.

Before you create your dashboard, you’ll need to create what Metabase calls “Questions”, which are essentially database queries. That might be the number of five-star reviews you’ve received in the past week, a ranking of product popularity, or whatever other data you have and want to visualize. Start by clicking `+ New` in the upper right corner and selecting `* Question`.

Pick your database from the list, followed by the table or category of data you want to chart. Let’s say you want to look at monthly orders. Orders would be under Data, and Filter would be set to Created At…Last 12 months. Then, you’d pick Sum of from the Summarize dropdown and choose whatever column maps to order total amount. Next to that is Pick a column to group by, which you might set to Created At…Month to see a bar graph of order totals over the past year. Click Visualize to see the chart.

On the next page, you can click Visualization to change the chart. Then, the gear icon includes a number of settings specific to that type of layout. Click Save in the upper right corner when it’s ready. Rinse and repeat for all the questions you want to appear on your BI dashboard. For the sake of visibility and comprehension, we recommend limiting data dashboards for digital signage to 5-7 metrics or widgets, but it depends on your preferences and display hardware. 

When you’re ready, click + New again and choose Dashboard. Give it a name and a description, and hit Create. That’ll take you to a blank grid-based canvas where you can drop text blocks, saved questions, and filter widgets. 

Once they’re on the canvas, simply click on an item’s corner to resize it however you’d like. Click Save in the upper right corner and your real-time business intelligence dashboard is ready to go. You can periodically check it, leave it open on your second screen, or, to get even more mileage out of the data, show it on a wall-mounted screen in the office.

Adding Metabase dashboards to digital signage

Sharing a business intelligence dashboard is a piece of cake in Metabase. Click the gear icon in the upper right corner of the screen and open the Admin settings. Go to the Public Sharing sidebar and switch the toggle from Disabled to Enabled. That setting only allows you to turn on sharing item by item. So go back to your dashboard, click the sharing icon (a box containing an arrow pointing to the top right corner), and activate public sharing. 

Now, you’ve got three ways to share dashboards and individual widgets: public links, public embeds (iframes codes), and “embeds in your application” (using JSON web tokens). The first option is the most straightforward. Send a co-worker the public link, and they can see your dashboard in almost any web browser. Public embeds let you show your dashboard inside websites, other apps, and slideshows on office TVs.

In ScreenCloud, for example, you’d head to the Apps sidebar and search for the Embed app. Open it and click New Instance. In the Embed code* field, paste the Public embed string from Metabase (which will only work if it’s an HTTPS address) and adjust the zoom factor as needed. Back in the Embed app’s list of instances, click the three horizontal dots and then Set to Screen or Add to playlists to start showing it on TVs and smart displays.

Playlists are the best way to make sure that the right people see the right data, at the right time. You might create an ‘Sales’ playlist that has a dashboard containing quarterly targets, leads totals, and leaderboards, following it up with slides that showcase product/service updates, vacation schedules (and who’s covering), competitor intelligence. Apply the same idea to playlists for support, HR, management, etc, setting them up to play on communal screens where each of those teams work.

With ScreenCloud, the Playlist sidebar acts as a drag-and-drop builder for adding and ordering content that you can add to screens. Or, to line up several different playlists back to back, you could create a Channel and have one playlist play right after another. Throw in some automated content updates alongside your BI dashboard, and you’ll barely ever need to worry about adding or removing content!

Turn business intelligence into an office centerpiece

It’s the best time in history to manage a database. There are more tools, platforms, and storage options than ever, each one built for analyzing, distilling, sharing, and presenting. Regardless of whether you’re working with an Airtable dashboard or an old-school SQL database, digital signage is an excellent way to get more mileage out of your data.

Between Metabase’s self-hosted option and ScreenCloud’s 14-day trial, you could get started today without spending a penny.

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