22 free tools for data visualization and analysis

Got data? These useful tools can turn it into informative, engaging graphics.

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Visualization applications and services

These tools offer a number of different visualization options. While some stick to conventional charts and graphs, many offer a range of other choices such as treemaps and word clouds. A few offer mapping as well, although if you're interested in maps, our sections on GIS/mapping focus specifically on that.

 Google Fusion Tables

What it does: This is one of the simplest ways I've seen to turn data into a chart or map. You can upload a file in several different formats and then choose how to display it: table, map, line chart, bar graph, pie chart, scatter plot and more. It's customizable, allowing you to change map icons and style info windows.

Free data analysis
Google Fusion Tables is a user-friendly tool that makes it easy to map data.

There are some data editing functions within Fusion Tables, although changing more than a few individual cell entries can quickly become tedious. You can also join tables (which is important when the data you want to map is in multiple tables), and filter, sort and add columns and so on.

Mapping goes beyond just placing points, as many of us are accustomed to with Google Maps. Fusion tables can also map multiple polygons with variations in color based on underlying data.

Google lets you designate your data as private or unlisted as well as public, although your data still resides on Google's servers -- a benefit or drawback, depending on whether server bandwidth costs or data privacy is more important to you.

What's cool: Fusion Tables offers relatively quick charting and mapping, including geographic information system (GIS) functions to analyze data by geography. The service also automatically geocodes addresses, which is useful when trying to place numerous points on a map. This is an excellent tool for beginners and advanced beginners to use to get comfortable with visualizing data; it's also a good fit for people who don't program. For more advanced users, there's an API.

Drawbacks: Functionality, customization and data capacity are all limited compared with desktop applications or custom code, and interacting with large data sets on the site can be sluggish. And, while Fusion Tables has been around for years, Google still considers it an experimental product.

Skill level: Beginner

Runs on: Any web browser

Learn more: See Google's three-minute tutorial on How to make a map in Google Fusion Tables. In addition, there are other how-tos in the Google Fusion Tables Help center, and several tutorials are available. Also see the Fusion Tables Example Gallery.

 Microsoft Power BI

What it does: This is Microsoft's general BI platform, with data wrangling and visualization for many different data sources (without Excel's row limits), as well as a web service that allows for streaming data and scheduled data updates.

Free data analysis
Creating a bar chart in Power BI.

Power BI was designed for robust data analysis that goes beyond Excel's natural capabilities. Aimed to be simple, it offers drag-and-drop visualizations as well as the ability to create auto-updating reports and dashboards. There's both free desktop software, which includes data-wrangling capabilities and is for Windows only, and a powerbi.com cloud service for visualizing data that can run in any modern browser. As of June 2017, private sharing on powerbi.com requires paid accounts, but free users can still post public visualizations as well as use the desktop software.

What's cool: This is simple to use for basic visualizations and report creation and makes it fairly easy to do data exploration. It will handle files too large for Excel. Customization and filtering are also fairly straightforward. Runs R scripts within the desktop software and can generate many R visualizations.

Drawbacks: Customizing can be a little cumbersome and somewhat limited. Moving back and forth between the desktop and cloud service can be a bit confusing at the outset. Data filtering is also a tad limited at times, although Microsoft is adding new capabilities to the platform monthly.

Skill level: Beginner

Runs on: Windows for the desktop; any web browser for the service

Learn more: See Computerworld's Free data visualization with Microsoft Power BI: Your step-by-step guide as well as training resources from Microsoft.

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