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8 cool tools for data analysis, visualization and presentation

March 27, 2012 06:00 AM ET

PowerPivot

What it does: This free plugin from Microsoft allows Excel 2010 to handle massively large data sets much more efficiently than the basic version of Excel does. It also lets Excel act like a relational database by adding the capacity to truly join columns in different tables instead of relying on Excel's somewhat cumbersome VLOOKUP command. PowerPivot includes its own formula language, Data Analysis Expressions (DAX), which has a similar syntax to Excel's conventional formulas.

PowerPivot
PowerPivot allows Excel 2010 to handle massively large data sets more efficiently.

What's cool: PowerPivot can handle millions of records -- data sets that would usually grind PowerPivot-less Excel to a halt. And by joining tables, you can make more "intelligent" pivot tables and charts to explore and visualize large data sets with Excel's point-and-click interface.

Drawbacks: This is limited to Excel 2010 on Windows systems. Also, SQL jocks might prefer using a true relational database for multi-table data in order to build complex data queries.

Skill level: Intermediate

Runs on: Excel 2010 on Windows only.

Learn more: There are links to demos and videos on the PowerPivot main page, as well as an introductory tutorial on Microsoft's TechNet.

Related tools: Zoho Reports can take data from various file formats and turn it into charts, tables and pivot tables.

Weave

What it does: This general-purpose visualization platform allows creation of interactive dashboards with multiple, related visualizations -- for example, a bar chart, scatter plot and map. The open-source project was created by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell in partnership with a consortium of government agencies and is still in beta.

Weave visualization
Weave demo visualization of foreclosures in Lowell, Mass. See the interactive version.

What's cool: The visualizations are slick and highly interactive; clicking an area in one visualization also affects others in the dashboard. The platform includes powerful statistical analysis capabilities. Users can create their own visualizations on a Weave-based Web system, or save and alter the tools and appearances of visualizations that have been publicly shared by others.

Drawbacks: Requires Flash for end-user viewing. It's currently somewhat difficult to install, although a one-click install is scheduled for this summer. And because it's so powerful, some users say that implementations must consider how to winnow down functionality so as not to overwhelm end users.

Skill level: Intermediate for those just creating visualizations; Expert for those implementing a Weave system.

Runs on: Flash-enabled browsers. Server requires a Java servlet container (Tomcat or Glassfish, MySQL or PostgreSQL, Linux and Adobe Flex 3.6 SDK).

Learn more: The Weave site includes demos, videos and a user guide. For more examples of visualizations that can be built using a Weave platform, see one planner's MetroBoston DataCommon gallery. In addition, I wrote more detailed Computerworld coverage of Weave following a presentation at Northeastern University.

Related tools: Tableau Public is a robust general-purpose visualization platform.

Also see: 22 free tools for data visualization and analysis (April 20, 2011) and Chart and image gallery: 30 free tools for data visualization and analysis.

is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter Twitter @sharon000, on Facebook, on Google+ or by subscribing to her RSS feeds:
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