22 free tools for data visualization and analysis

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

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 Tableau Public

What it does: This tool can turn data into any number of visualizations, from simple to complex. You can drag and drop fields onto the work area and ask the software to suggest a visualization type, then customize everything from labels and tool tips to size, interactive filters and legend display.

Free data analysis
Tableau Public can turn data into any number of visualizations, from simple to complex.

What's cool: Tableau Public offers a variety of ways to display interactive data. You can combine multiple connected visualizations onto a single dashboard, where one search filter can act on numerous charts, graphs and maps; underlying data tables can also be joined. And once you get the hang of how the software works, its drag-and-drop interface is considerably quicker than manually coding in JavaScript or R for most users, making it more likely that you'll try additional scenarios with your data set. In addition, you can easily perform calculations on data within the software. Tableau offers 10G of storage for public accounts and 15 million rows per workbook.

Drawbacks: In the free version of Tableau's business intelligence software, your visualization and data must reside on Tableau's site. Whenever you save your work, it gets sent up to the public website -- which means you can't save work in progress without running the risk that it will be seen before it's ready (while Tableau's site won't deliberately expose your work, it relies on security by obscurity -- so someone could see your work if he or she guesses your URL). And once your work is saved, viewers are invited to download your entire workbook with data. Upgrading to a single-user personal subscription costs $35/month; professional edition is $70/month.

Tableau's learning curve is steeper than, say, Fusion Tables. Even with the drag-and-drop interface, it'll take more than an hour or two to learn how to use the software's true capabilities, although you can get up and running doing simple charts and maps before too long. And, some users have complained that making Tableau graphics mobile-friendly can be challenging.

Skill level: Advanced beginner to intermediate

Runs on: Windows; macOS X

Learn more: There are several short training videos on the Tableau site, where you can also find downloadable data files that you can use to follow along.

You can see a sample in our article "Tech Unemployment Climbs; Self-employment Steady."

 Google Data Studio

What it does: This service is designed to create dashboards and reports from multiple data sources. The focus is on Google sources such as Google Sheets, Google Analytics and BigQuery, but some other sources are supported as well, such as MySQL and PostgreSQL databases.


Sample report in Google Data Studio

This is fairly easy to use, offering drag-and-drop visualizations such as time series, bar charts, tables, maps and "score cards" (a card that calls out one statistic). Styling includes a grid and alignment options, making it easy to ensure that multiple boxes aren't slightly off in a row. You can also create your own calculated fields within Data Studio, including formulas with a few dozen available functions.

What's cool: Relatively easy to use -- I was up and running after watching a couple of tutorial videos. One of the easiest ways to create Google Analytics dashboards for multiple websites.

Drawbacks: It's a beta product, meaning there's a higher-than-average risk of it going away (or no longer being free). Limited number of available visualizations compared with some other options. Data has to reside in the cloud, which could be a deal-breaker for some sensitive information.

Skill level: Beginner

Runs on: Any web browser

Learn more: See Google's Data Studio video tutorials.

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