Create simple, free charts with Datawrapper

This is part of my continuing series on free data visualization tools. You can see an updated chart of all 30+ data visualization and analysis tools in the series.


What it does: This is an extremely quick and easy way to create Web charts. Add data by either copying and pasting from a spreadsheet or uploading a CSV file, making sure to get rid of any formatting (commas, percent signs and so on). Select from one of five chart types, type in a title and click publish. That's it. You'll get a URL if you'd like to link to your visualization or embed code to add the chart to another Web page.

The service is aimed at journalists, but there's nothing stopping others from using it. (The site says it's open to "any organization" that "want[s] to publish charts online.") In beta since January, version 1.0 was released this month.

Charts are hosted on Amazon Web Services and include a link for anyone to download your data, as well as a  promotional (although non-intrusive) "Created with Datawrapper" link. (Update: Free accounts can download static versions of charts, but a paid account is required for Amazon hosted versions.) You can see a sample chart I created on the Datawrapper site.

Datawrapper offers a few different options for colors and data grouping, but overall there's not much customization available. However, this is an open-source project created by ABZV, a German journalism-training institute, using PHP and JavaScript. If you like the tool but don't want to count on ABZV's Amazon hosting to be freely available indefinitely, or you'd like a more customized version -- different colors, your own logo, no link to Datawrapper or to download your data -- you can get the code from GitHub, modify the CSS or other files and install Datawrapper on a server of your own. Or you can ask the folks at ABZV to customize an online version for you, although that will take this out of the "free tools" category. Update: As of Dec. 7, 2014, Datawrapper ended free hosting for charts, but you can still use the service to create and download your chart and then upload it to the Web yourself manually. There are now paid hosting plans.

What's cool: There are some common-sense, welcome UI touches here. When entering data, for example, you can choose to prepend any symbol to your numbers (dollar sign and so on) as well as append characters like "%" or "M." And, when visualizing, there's a one-click "transpose the data" option to change how data are grouped into series. This is quite a bit handier than altering your spreadsheet and re-uploading data.

Changing the chart embed code's width and height actually alters the size of your chart preview in real time, which lets you know whether a certain size makes visual sense. And you can choose to "highlight" one specific data point if the purpose of your visualization is to spotlight a specific number.

Drawbacks: The lack of customization can be frustrating. Sometimes a tweak as simple as moving the legend or changing an axis label would make me a lot happier with a chart than what's available by default. Color palettes are quite limited, as are chart types.

Occasionally the service seemed to stop working -- but what was actually happening is that I was being logged out after inactivity without being told my session had ended and I needed to log in again. And one help screen was in German only, even though I'd selected the English version.

Bottom line: If you need a very fast way to generate a simple chart, don't require a lot of customization and don't mind having your data easily downloadable -- or want to host a version of a tool that can do this for others -- you may want to include Datawrapper in your dataviz toolbox.

However, if you need more visualization options than bar, column, donut, line and pie charts and still want ease of use, you'll probably want to look at a robust service such as IBM's Many Eyes or newcomer Check out my chart of 30+ free tools for data visualization and analysis, including ease-of-use ratings, for more ideas.

Skill level: Beginner.

Runs on: Any Web browser.

Learn more: The short Datawrapper tutorial will tell you most of what you need to know.

Want more on dataviz tools? Check out the rest of my dataviz series:

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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