22 free tools for data visualization and analysis

Got data? These useful tools can turn it into informative, engaging graphics.

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 Plotly

What it does: The web service lets you create and host visualizations, from basic charts and scatter plots to statistical graphics such as histograms and box plots.

Plotly visualizationScreenshot of Plotly interface

Editing a sample visualization in Plotly 

Plotly aims at statistical analysis along with charts and graphs you might see in your local newspaper. A free account includes one private file as well as unlimited public files and connections to seven types of data sources.

Plotly also open-sourced its JavaScript library, for those who want to work with their data locally and do more customizations; libraries for Python and R; and a client for MATLAB. There's even a free Excel add-in.

What's cool: It's relatively easy to make interactive visualizations on the service, and the technology can be used across a wide variety of platforms.

Drawbacks: Even with customization, Plotly visualizations have a distinctive look that might not be for everyone. There's limited free use of private data on the service.

Skill level: Beginner for web service; expert for most of the open-source libraries

Runs on: Modern web browsers

Learn more: Check resources at the Plotly Help Center.

 Qlik Sense Desktop

What it does: This multipurpose BI tool can wrangle data and create interactive data visualizations, reports and dashboards.

Qlik Sense DesktopSCREENSHOT OF QLIK SENSE DESKTOP DASHBOARD

Sample dashboard in Qlik Sense Desktop

The free Qlik desktop app is designed for personal data exploration or sharing in small groups. If you want to collaborate or share, Qlik Sense Cloud is free for sharing with up to five other users.

You can prepare data before loading, create associations from multiple sources, edit within the application and create visualizations such as combo charts and tree maps.

What's cool: This is a fairly robust application for free, and all data can be saved locally. Data sources can include Apache Hive, REST and Salesforce as well as other types, such as databases and spreadsheets.

Drawbacks: With power comes complexity: You'll need to invest some time learning this application. Some of the latest intro tutorial videos assume knowledge of the product's prior version instead of focusing on beginners to the platform.

Skill level: Advanced beginner to intermediate

Runs on: 64-bit Windows

Learn more: Qlik video tutorials

 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).

Free data analysis
Graphics created by VIDI's visualization wizard can be used on any HTML page -- no Drupal required. 

What's cool: This is easy to use, with 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.

Drawbacks: Surprisingly, the visualization wizard was 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 a 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: 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).

Free data analysis
Zoho Reports provides traditional business charts and graphs. 

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 100,000 rows in the free version. I found the navigation confusing at times.

Skill level: Advanced beginner

Runs on: Any web browser

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

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