22 free tools for data visualization and analysis

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

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Code help: Wizards, libraries, APIs

Sometimes nothing can substitute for coding your own visualization -- especially if the look and feel you're after can't be achieved without an existing desktop or web app. But that doesn't mean you need to start from scratch, thanks to a wide range of available libraries and APIs.

 D3.js

What it does: One of the most popular JavaScript libraries for creating web visualizations, D3.js "combines powerful visualization components and a data-driven approach to DOM [Web document] manipulation," according to the project's website.

Data-Driven Documents (D3)
Data-Driven Documents (D3).

D3.js allows you to create data-based visualizations on a web page, allowing designers to create a wide range of interactive visualizations.

What's cool: If you can imagine it, chances are good that you can implement it in D3.js. One oldie but goodie from The New York TimesComparing Facebook's initial stock offerings to other tech IPOs.

Drawbacks: This is not a trivial skill to learn. You'll need a fair amount of knowledge about both this JavaScript library and web technologies in general in order to do anything compelling. For basic dataviz, this will be a lot of work for the uninitiated.

Skill level: Expert

Runs on: Most modern browsers

Learn more: See the D3 tutorials page, including links to some useful beginners' how-tos by Scott Murray.

 Exhibit

What it does: This spin-off of the MIT Simile Project is designed to help users "easily create Web pages with advanced text search and filtering functionalities, with interactive maps, timelines and other visualization." Billed as a publishing framework, the JavaScript library allows easy additions of filters, searches and more. The Easy Data Visualization for Journalists page offers examples of the code in use at a number of newspaper websites.

"Easy" is in the eye of the beholder -- what's easy for the professionals at MIT who created Exhibit might not be that simple for a user whose comfort level stops at Excel. Like most JavaScript libraries, Exhibit requires more hand-coding than services such as Google Fusion Tables. On the other hand, Exhibit has clear documentation for beginners, even those with no JavaScript experience.

What's cool: For those who are comfortable coding, Exhibit offers a number of views -- maps, charts, timeplots, calendars and more -- as well as customized lenses (ways to format an individual record) and facets (properties that can be searched or sorted). You may be more likely to get the exact presentation you want with Exhibit than a web service with limited customization. And your data stays local unless and until you decide to publish.

Drawbacks: For newcomers unused to coding visualizations, it takes time to get familiar with coding and library syntax.

Skill level: Expert

Learn more: There are a number of examples you can look at, including U.S. Cities by Population and others.

 Google Chart Tools

What it does: Unlike Google Fusion Tables, which is a full-fledged, self-contained application for storing data and generating charts and maps, Chart Tools is designed to visualize data residing elsewhere, such as your own website or within Google Docs.

Free data analysis
Google Chart Tools offers both a wizard and an API for creating Web graphics from data.

The Chart Tools API accesses a Google JavaScript library for creating interactive graphics. (Note: Google ended support for creating static image charts. The Chart Tools API is not affected.)

The visualization API includes various types of charts, maps, tables and other options.

What's cool: The API lets you pull data in from a Google spreadsheet. You can create icons that mix text and images for visualizations, such as this weather forecast note, and what it calls a "Google-o-meter" graphic. The Visualization API also has some of the best documentation I've seen for a JavaScript library.

Drawbacks: The API, as with other JavaScript libraries, requires coding, making this more of a programming tool than an end-user business intelligence application. But unlike most other JavaScript libraries, you don't have access to the underlying code and have to depend on Google to continue supporting the platform.

Skill level: Advanced beginner to expert

Runs on: Any web browser

Learn more: See the Quick Start. There are also samples in the Google Visualization API Gallery.

 JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit

What it does: InfoVis is probably not among the best-known JavaScript visualization libraries, but it could be worth a look if you're interested in publishing interactive data visualizations on the web.

What sets this tool apart from many others is the highly polished graphics it creates from just basic code samples. InfoVis creator Nicolas García Belmonte, senior software architect at Sencha Inc., clearly cares as much about aesthetic design as he does about the code, and it shows.

InfoViz

This sunburst of a directory tree shows some of the visualization capabilities of the JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit. You can see a larger, interactive version on the InfoVis website.

What's cool: The samples are gorgeous, and there's no extra coding involved to get nifty fly-in effects. You can choose to download code for only the visualization types you want to use to minimize the weight of web pages.

Drawbacks: Since this is not an application but a code library, you must have coding expertise in order to use it. Therefore, this might not be a good fit for users who analyze data but don't know how to program. Also, the choice of visualization types is somewhat limited. And it appears the code hasn't been updated for several years.

Skill level: Expert

Runs on: JavaScript-enabled web browsers

Learn more: See demos with source code.

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