A guide to online data plotting
When you’re dealing with complex data, visualization tools can help you simplify it and, more importantly, spot key trends and gain new insights
Sales figures, consumer behaviour and market research – the work we do often involves understanding and communicating a lot of complex information. To make good decisions, you need to be able to understand the data, and quickly. Visualization tools can simplify data, and make it easier to understand and spot key trends.
According to Deloitte’s “Tech Trends 2011: The Natural Convergence of Business and IT” report released in March, data-visualization tools were the fastest developing area in software last year.
Data in, graphic out: Visual representations of data are easier to understand.
“Data visualization compresses information quickly,” says S. Anand, 37, chief data scientist, Gramener, a Hyderabad-based data-visualization company. “For example, in a chart, a bar can give you a data set with its height, colour and thickness, so you have already compressed a table with three columns into one graph,” he explains. “A 40-page report can easily be converted into a single page of graphics.” By doing this, a large amount of data becomes easily accessible, and trends and highlights are easy to pick out, compared to a table of numbers.
“Data-visualization tools are typically designed to highlight relevant insights, rather than just present raw data as in a dashboard,” explains Stewart Langille, co-founder, Visual.ly, a new online visualization tool. Another useful aspect of viewing data as visuals is that you can highlight the information that’s really important and even get newer, completely unexpected insights into the data sets.
Like the idea? We list some of the most innovative online data-visualization tools:
After you install the software, you enter the data either as a spreadsheet (Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access) or text file with tab spaces. The software reads the file to identify variables. Once you choose the relevant variables, it creates a visual chart of your data. The software automatically tries to give the right kind of chart, but you can also manually choose from options such as bar charts, histograms, scatter plots, bubble charts, pie charts, bullet graphs, maps and heat matrix, etc. Tableau charts can also be interactive, so viewers can rearrange the data to analyse it from different perspectives. The chart is saved on www.tableausoftware.com
The downside is that visualizations and data are public — anyone can download your work. To keep it private, and for added features such as more filters and representations, you could buy the Personal Edition for $999 (around Rs. 50,300), or the Professional Edition for $1,999.
Cost: Free to use, with paid editions starting at $999.
Many Eyes, launched in January 2007, is one of the first data-visualization tools, and was created by IBM Research. You have to upload your data to the site, and can view it as a scatter plot, matrix chart, network diagram, bar chart, block histogram, bubble chart, graph, pie chart, treemap, and many other visualizations. The upload process is cumbersome, though — you can copy-paste, but only from a properly formatted text file, not a spreadsheet. It accepts a specific style of rows and column data. So even if you have a spreadsheet, you might need to edit it to make sure Many Eyes understands your data.
As with Tableau Public, whatever data you upload becomes public property, but unlike Tableau, there is no paid, private option.
Cost: Free to use
The software creates an interactive dashboard which shows your data and your company’s progress to you at a glance through 3D graphs. You can also use the dashboard to give your clients or investors a clear picture of exactly what they are investing in. All you need to do is drag and drop your Excel or CSV-formatted text files into Spotfire, and then start playing around with your data. The analysis can be shared or embedded on websites, blogs or social networks, and there is no download needed as it runs off the Web. A paid service, Spotfire keeps your data private.
Cost: Starts from $199 per month.
QlikView is meant to find new business answers to problems through data analysis. The tool also offers comparative analysis of a product or person. QlikView also has versions for smartphones and tablets, and is well suited to use on touch screens.
Cost: QlikView Personal Edition software is free, but you can only use it to analyse data, not share your results. To share data, you need the enterprise version. Pricing varies, so contact www.qlikview.com
A collection of infographics from various professionals in the industry, Visual.ly allows users to easily share charts and infographics. In March, the company plans to launch a free online tool to convert data into visuals — there is a small demo available on the website where you can convert your Twitter feed into an infographic about you.
The input data has to be in known data sets like Excel and CSV files. Users need to create a login for the tool, input their data and select from a choice of templates to customize.
Cost: Free. Paid packages are expected but have not yet been announced.
FusionCharts Suite is an Indian commercial visualization tool which can convert any database or Web script into Flash or HTML5 charts, gauges and maps. Creating the chart takes 15 minutes, and you can choose from over 90 types of charts. The visualization helps in analyses of data by giving trendlines, colour ranges and number scales. You can choose subsets, tips, export charts and do visual editing. Once you are ready, the chart is rendered and can be shared or embedded in a website. You can choose whether the chart is editable by others, and can use the software to create real-time charts that update automatically.
Cost: One-time purchase for commercial use starts at $1,299. For personal use, you can get a licence for $499. Also available as extensions for Flex (starting at $299), Dreamweaver (starting at $69) and VisualBasic 6 (starting at $99).