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22 free tools for data visualization and analysis

April 20, 2011 06:00 AM ET

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.

Free data analysis
Google Chart Tools offers both a wizard and an API for creating Web graphics from data.
Click to view larger image.

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 (Note: Google announced in April 2012 that it will be phasing out its Chart Tools for creating static image charts. Chart Tools API is not affected.). 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.

InfoViz
This sunburst of a directory tree shows some of the visualization capabilities of the JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit. You can see a larger, interactive version on the InfoVis website.

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.



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