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8 cool tools for data analysis, visualization and presentation

March 27, 2012 06:00 AM ET

FreeDive

What it does: This alpha project from the Knight Digital Media Center at UC Berkeley turns a Google Docs spreadsheet into an interactive, sortable database that can be posted on the Web.

What's cool: In addition to text searching, you can include numerical range-based sliders. Usage is free. End users can easily create their own databases from spreadsheets without writing code.

FreeDive
FreeDive turns a Google Docs spreadsheet into an interactive, sortable database

FreeDive's chief current attraction is the ability to create databases without programming; however, freeDive source code will be posted and available for use once the project is more mature. That could appeal to IT departments seeking a way to offer this type of service in-house, allowing end users to turn a Google Doc into a filterable, sortable Web database using the Google Visualization API, Google Query Language, JavaScript and jQuery -- without needing to manually generate that code.

Drawbacks: My test application ran into some intermittent problems; for example, it wouldn't display my data list when using the "show all records" button. This is an alpha project, and should be treated as such.

In addition, the current iteration limits spreadsheets to 10 columns and a single sheet. One column must have numbers, so this won't work for text-only information. The search widget is currently limited to a few specific choices of fields to search, although this might increase as the project matures. (A paid service like Caspio would offer more customization.) The nine-step wizard might get cumbersome after frequent use.

Skill level: Advanced beginner.

Runs on: Current Web browsers

Learn more: The freeDive site includes several video tutorials at the bottom of the home page as well as test data to try out the wizard.

Related tools: Caspio is a well-established commercial alternative. For a JavaScript alternative with more control over the table created from a Google Docs spreadsheet, you might want to investigate Tabletop, which makes a Google Docs spreadsheet accessible to JavaScript code.

Highcharts JS

What it does: This JavaScript library from Highsoft Solutions provides an easy way to create professional-looking interactive charts for the Web. JQuery, Mootools or Prototype required.

What's cool: With Highcharts, users can mouse over items for more details; they can also click on items in the chart legend to turn them on and off. There are many different chart types available, from basic line, bar, column and area charts to zoomable time series; each comes with six stylesheet options. Little customization is needed to get a sleek-looking chart -- and charts will display on iOS and Android devices as well as on desktop browsers.

Highcharts example with data about Apple device sales. Mouse over the graph to see details; click items in the legend to turn them on or off.

Drawbacks: Highcharts, like Google Maps, does have a distinctive look, so you may want to customize the Highcharts stylesheets so your visualizations don't look like numerous other Highcharts on the Web. While charts displayed fine for me on an Android phone, they weren't interactive (they were on an iPad).

And unlike most JavaScript/jQuery libraries, Highcharts is free only for non-commercial use, although a site-wide license for many companies costs only $80. (The cost jumps to $300 per developer seat in some cases -- for example, if charts are customized for individual users.) Rendering can be slow in some older browsers (notably Internet Explorer 6 and 7).

Skill level: Intermediate to Expert.

Runs on: Web browsers

Learn more: The Highcharts demo gallery includes easy-to-view source code; the documentation explains other options.

Related tools: Google Chart Tools create static image charts and graphs or more interactive JavaScript-based visualizations; there are also JavaScript libraries such as Protovis and the JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit. Exhibit is an MIT Simile Project spinoff designed for presenting data on the Web with filtering, sorting and interactive capabilities.



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