22 Free Tools for Data Visualization and Analysis

You may not think you've got much in common with an investigative journalist or an academic medical researcher. But if you're trying to extract useful information from an ever-increasing inflow of data, you'll likely find visualization useful -- whether it's to show patterns or trends with graphics instead of mountains of text, or to try to explain complex issues to a nontechnical audience.

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What's cool: Tableau Public offers a variety of ways to display interactive data. You can combine multiple connected visualizations onto a single dashboard, where one search filter can act on numerous charts, graphs and maps; underlying data tables can also be joined. And once you get the hang of how the software works, its drag-and-drop interface is considerably quicker than manually coding in JavaScript or R for most users, making it more likely that you'll try additional scenarios with your data set. In addition, you can easily perform calculations on data within the software.

Drawbacks: In the free version of Tableau's business intelligence software, your visualization and data must reside on Tableau's site. Whenever you save your work, it gets sent up to the public website -- which means you can't save work in progress without running the risk that it will be seen before it's ready (while Tableau's site won't deliberately expose your work, it relies on security by obscurity -- so someone could see your work if they guess your URL). And once it's saved, viewers are invited to download your entire workbook with data. Upgrading to a single-user desktop edition costs $999.

Not surprisingly, all that functionality comes at a cost: Tableau's learning curve is fairly steep compared to that of, say, Fusion Tables. Even with the drag-and-drop interface, it'll take more than an hour or two to learn how to use the software's true capabilities, although you can get up and running doing simple charts and maps before too long.

Skill level: Advanced beginner to intermediate.

Runs on: Windows 7, Vista, XP, 2003, Server 2008, 2003.

Learn more: There are seven short training videos on the Tableau site, where you can also find downloadable data files that you can use to follow along.

You can see a sample in our article "Tech Unemployment Climbs; Self-employment Steady."

Many Eyes

A pioneer in Web-based data visualization, IBM's Many Eyes project combines graphical analysis with community, encouraging users to upload, share and discuss information. It's extremely easy to use and very well documented, including suggestions on when to use what kind of visual data representation. Many Eyes includes more than a dozen output options -- from charts, graphics and word clouds to treemaps, plots, network diagrams and some limited geographic maps.

You'll need a free account to upload and post data, although anyone can browse. Formatting is basic: For most visualizations, the data must be in a tab-separated text file with column headers in the first row.

It took me about three minutes to create a bar chart of top H-1B visa employers.

It took perhaps another minute to create a treemap of the same data.

What's cool: Visualization can't get much easier, and the results look considerably more sophisticated than you'd expect based on the minimal amount of effort needed to create them. Plus, the list of possible visualization types includes explanations of the types of data each one is best suited for.

Drawbacks: Both your visualizations and your data sets are public on the Many Eyes site and can be easily downloaded, shared, reposted and commented upon by others. This can be great for certain types of users -- especially government agencies, nonprofits, schools and other organizations that want to share visualizations on someone else's server budget -- but an obvious problem for others. (IBM does offer a contact form for businesses interested in hosting their own version of the software.) In addition, customization is limited, as is data file size (5MB).

Skill level: Beginner.

Runs on: Java and any modern Web browser that can display Flash.

Learn more: IBM's website features pages explaining data formatting for Many Eyes and visualization choices.

You can see some featured visualizations on the Many Eyes home page or browse through some of the tens of thousands of uploads. One interesting map shows popular surnames in the U.S. from the 2000 Census by Martin Wattenberg, one of the creators of Many Eyes.

VIDI

What it does: Although VIDI's website bills this as a tool for the Drupal content management system, graphics created by the site's visualization wizard can be used on any HTML page -- no Drupal required.

Upload your data, select a visualization type, do a bit of customization selection, and your chart, timeline or map is ready to use via auto-generated embed code (using an iframe, not JavaScript or Flash).

What's cool: This is about as easy as Many Eyes -- with more mapping options and no need to make your visualization and data set public on its website. There are quick screencasts explaining each visualization type and several different color customization options. And the file-size limit of 30MB is six times larger than Many Eyes' 5MB maximum.

Drawbacks: Oddly, the visualization wizard was a lot easier to use than the embed code -- my embedded iframe didn't display while trying to preview it on the VIDI website; I needed to save the visualization and go to the "My VIDI" page to get embed code that actually worked. Also, as with any cloud service, if you're using this for Web publishing, you'll want to feel confident that the host's servers can handle your traffic and will be available longer than your need to display the data.

Skill level: Beginner.

Runs on: Any Web browser.

Learn more: The VIDI home page features a link to an 11-minute video tutorial.

It took me less than five minutes to create a sample: a map of earthquakes of 7.0 magnitude or more since Jan. 1, 2000.

Zoho Reports

What it does: One of the more traditional corporate-focused business analytics offerings in this group, Zoho Reports can take data from various file formats or directly from a database and turn it into charts, tables and pivot tables -- formats familiar to most spreadsheet users.

What's cool: You can schedule data imports from sources on the Web. Data can be queried using SQL and can be turned into visualizations, and the service is set up for Web publishing and sharing (although if it's accessed by more than two users, you will need a paid account).

Drawbacks: Visualization options are fairly basic and limited. Interacting live with the Web-based data can be sluggish at times. Data files are limited to 10MB. I found the navigation confusing at times -- for example, after I saved a copy of a sample database, I was told it was in the folder "My reports," yet I had a hard time finding that.

Skill level: Advanced beginner.

Runs on: Any Web browser.

Learn more: There are video demos and samples on Zoho's website.

Code help: Wizards, libraries, APIs

Sometimes nothing can substitute for coding your own visualization -- especially if the look and feel you're after can't be achieved without an existing desktop or Web app. But that doesn't mean you need to start from scratch, thanks to a wide range of available libraries and APIs.

Choosel (under development)

What it does: This open-source Web-based framework is designed for charts, clouds, graphs, timelines and maps. Right now, it is geared more for developers who create applications than it is for end users who need to save and/or embed their work; but there's an interactive online demo that lets you quickly upload some data to visualize.

What's cool: As with Tableau Public, you can have more than one visualization on a page and connect them so that, for example, mousing over items on a chart will highlight corresponding items on a map.

Drawbacks: This is not yet an application that end users can use to store and share their work. And I found the online demo to be finicky about uploading data -- even after I corrected field formats for dates (dd/mm/yyyy) and location (latitude/longitude) as documented, my data wouldn't load until I had another text field added (rather than just having numerical fields). It was also unclear how to customize labels. This project shows promise if it's further developed and documented.

Skill level: Expert

Runs on: Chrome, Safari and Firefox.

Learn more: There's a short video called Choosel -- Timeline and Basic Features and a sample titled Earthquakes With 1,000 or More Deaths Since 1900.

Exhibit

What it does: This spin-off of the MIT Simile Project is designed to help users "easily create Web pages with advanced text search and filtering functionalities, with interactive maps, timelines and other visualization." Billed as a publishing framework, the JavaScript library allows easy additions of filters, searches and more. The Easy Data Visualization for Journalists page offers examples of the code in use at a number of newspaper websites.

Of course, "easy" is in the eye of the beholder -- what's easy for the professionals at MIT who created Exhibit might not be that simple for a user whose comfort level stops at Excel. Like most JavaScript libraries, Exhibit requires more hand-coding than services such as Many Eyes and Google Fusion Tables. On the other hand, Exhibit has clear documentation for beginners, even those with no JavaScript experience.

What's cool: For those who are comfortable coding, Exhibit offers a number of views -- maps, charts, timeplots, calendars and more -- as well as customized lenses (ways to format an individual record) and facets (properties that can be searched or sorted). You're much more likely to get the exact presentation you want with Exhibit than, say, Many Eyes. And your data stays local unless and until you decide to publish.

Drawbacks: For newcomers unused to coding visualizations, it takes time to get familiar with coding and library syntax.

Skill level: Expert.

Learn more: There are a number of examples you can look at, including Red Sox-Yankees Winning Percentages Through the Years, U.S. Cities by Population and others.

Note: There are numerous other JavaScript libraries to help create visualizations, such as the recently released Data-Driven Documents and the jQuery Visualize plug-in. Six Revisions' list of 20 Fresh JavaScript Data Visualization Libraries gives you an idea of how many there are to choose from.

Google Chart Tools

What it does: Unlike Google Fusion Tables, which is a full-fledged, self-contained application for uploading and storing data, and generating charts and maps, Chart Tools is designed to visualize data residing elsewhere, such as your own website or within Google Docs.

Google offers both a Chart API using a "simple URL request to a Google chart server" for creating a static image and a Visualization API that accesses a JavaScript library for creating interactive graphics. Google offers a comparison of data size, page load, skills needed and other factors to help you decide which option to use.

For the simpler static graphics, there's a wizard to help you create a chart from some sample formats; it goes as far as helping you input data row by row, although for any decent-size data set -- say, more than half a dozen or so entries -- it makes more sense to format it in a text file.

The visualization API includes various types of charts, maps, tables and other options.

What's cool: The static image chart is reasonably easy to use and features a Live Chart Playground, which allows you to tweak code and see your results in real time.

The more robust API lets you pull data in from a Google spreadsheet. You can create icons that mix text and images for visualizations, such as this weather forecast note, and what it calls a "Google-o-meter" graphic. The Visualization API also has some of the best documentation I've seen for a JavaScript library.

Drawbacks: The static charts tool requires a bit more work than some of the other Web-based services, and it doesn't always offer lots of extras in return. And for the API, as with other JavaScript libraries, coding is required, making this more of a programming tool than an end-user business intelligence application.

Skill level: Advanced beginner to expert.

Runs on: Any Web browser.

Learn more: See Getting Started With Charts and Interactive Charts. There are also samples in the Google Visualization API Gallery.

JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit

What it does: InfoVis is probably not among the best known JavaScript visualization libraries, but it's definitely worth a look if you're interested in publishing interactive data visualizations on the Web. The White House agrees: InfoVis was used to create the Obama administration's Interactive Budget graphic.

What sets this tool apart from many others is the highly polished graphics it creates from just basic code samples. InfoVis creator Nicolas García Belmonte, senior software architect at Sencha Inc., clearly cares as much about aesthetic design as he does about the code, and it shows.

What's cool: The samples are gorgeous and there's no extra coding involved to get nifty fly-in effects. You can choose to download code for only the visualization types you want to use to minimize the weight of Web pages.

Drawbacks: Since this is not an application but a code library, you must have coding expertise in order to use it. Therefore, this might not be a good fit for users in an organization who analyze data but don't know how to program. Also, the choice of visualization types is somewhat limited. Moreover, the data should be in JSON format.

Skill level: Expert.

Runs on: JavaScript-enabled Web browsers.

Learn more: See demos with source code.

Protovis

What it does: Billed as a "graphical toolkit for visualization," this project from Stanford University's Visualization Group is one of the more popular JavaScript libraries for turning data into visuals; it's designed to balance simplicity with control over the display.

What's cool: One of the best things about Protovis is how well it's documented, with plenty of examples featuring visualization and sample code. There are also a large number of samplevisualization types available, including maps and some statistical analyses. This is a robust tool, capable of building graphics like this color-coded U.S. map with timeline slider.

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