Chartbuilder generates basic (but professional) graphics with ease

Financial news site Quartz has open sourced its in-house chart-creation tool. Why yet another graphics tool? This one aims to let one technically savvy user offer non-technical colleagues a fast, easy way to generate simple but compelling graphs.

What it does: Chartbuilder "has given everyone in our worldwide newsroom 24-hour access to simple charts at graphics-desk quality," Quartz data journalist David Yanofsky writes at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Now, anyone can download the code and run it either locally for themselves or on an internal Web server to share.

The tool was designed for speedy workflow, immediate visual feedback every time you make a change, ease of customizing, simple output formats and usage offline, he explained.

What's cool: Just as Yanofsky advertises, this is incredibly easy to use. Installation is as simple as downloading and unzipping (or cloning from Github). Start up the included-with-Python SimpleHTTPServer to start running Charbuilder on your desktop locally at http://localhost:8000.

Data can be cut and pasted into the tool. There are fields in the workspace for tweaking things like graph axes and labels. Each time you make a change, it's immediately visible on the chart as you work. Graphics look polished; but if you don't like the style, the included stylesheets can be tweaked. While designed for newsrooms, this tool could be useful for any organization that needs to create basic charts and graphs.

Drawbacks: Although the jQuery library D3 is one of this tool's underpinnings, Chartbuilder's graphics are static. That is, there's no user interaction possible to turn different data series off and on or even to mouse over points or bars to see data behind a graph. Instead, graphics can be saved as either SVG or PNG files. Yanofsky explains in his Nieman Journalism Lab post that it's a lot easier for a non-technical writer to embed a static image into an online file than a jumble of JavaScript code; plus, not all content management systems will accept JavaScript. To me, though, static charts lose one of the major advantages of seeing a chart online as opposed to in print: offering visitors an interactive experience and the ability to drill down for more info. 

Title customization (font size, alignment) needs to be done in Chartbuilder's CSS files, not interactively on the chart.

Visualization types are limited to line, bar/column or scatter plot.

Skill level: Beginner (perhaps advanced beginner if you're downloading and installing it yourself).

Runs on: A Web browser.

Bottom line: This is an interesting alternative to, say, static charts from Excel, without having to upload data to a hosted service. Within an organization, you only need one knowledgeable person to install the tool (and customize the CSS if desired); then, many non-technical colleagues can make use of it. Just remember that while the tool itself is extremely interactive, its resulting print-like charts are not -- even though they do look professionally produced.

Interested in other free data tools? See my chart of 30+ free tools for data visualization and analysis.

Chartbuilder work screen

The Chartbuilder chart creation screen

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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