22 free tools for data visualization and analysis

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

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GIS/mapping on the desktop

There's a wide range of business uses for geographic information systems (GIS), ranging from oil exploration to choosing sites for new retail stores. Or, as The Miami Herald did for its Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of Hurricane Andrew, you can compare maximum wind speeds with damage reports and building information (and perhaps discover, for example, that the worst damage didn't happen in the areas suffering the heaviest winds, but in areas with a lot of new, shoddy construction).

 Quantum GIS (QGIS) 

What it does: This is full-fledged GIS software, designed for creating maps that offer sophisticated, detailed, data-based analysis of a geographic regions.

The best-known desktop GIS software is probably Esri's ArcGIS, a robust, well-supported application that costs quite a bit of money. The open-source QGIS is an alternative.

Free data analysis
Quantum GIS (QGIS) offers full-fledged geospatial visualization and analysis on the desktop.

As OpenOffice is to Microsoft Office, QGIS is to ArcGIS. ArcGIS enthusiasts argue that Esri's offering is a couple of iterations ahead of open-source alternatives, has a better-developed interface, enjoys commercial support and is better suited for print output. But QGIS users say the open-source alternative is an excellent program that does a great deal of useful GIS work -- and there's now a company called Boundless that aims to offer (paid) enterprise support.

What's cool: QGIS has an enormous amount of GIS functionality, including the ability to create maps, overlay various types of data, do spatial analysis, publish to the web and more. It can also be enhanced with plug-ins that add support for numerous undertakings, including geocoding, managing underlying table data, exporting to MySQL and generating HTML image maps.

Drawbacks: As with any sophisticated GIS application, learning to use this software entails a serious commitment of time and training. Even in hour-long hands-on sessions with first ArcGIS and then QGIS, I noticed things that were easier to do in the commercial option, such as some calculated fields.

Runs on: Linux, Unix, macOS X, Windows. (This is one case where installation is more complicated on OS X, since it requires manual installation of several dependencies. There's a one-click installer for Windows.)

Skill level: Intermediate to expert

Learn more: Timothy Barmann of The Providence Journal posted two very useful tutorials for the CAR conference that are still available: Introduction to QGIS and The Latest in Mapping With JavaScript and jQuery. Another resource to help you get started: QGIS Tutorial Labs, from Richard E. Plant, professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis.

Note: If you're interested in GIS and want to consider other free software options, download this PDF listing of Open Source/Non-Commercial GIS Products. And if you're looking for a free open-source desktop GIS program that might be fairly easy to use, Jacob Fenton, director of computer-assisted reporting at American University's Investigative Reporting Workshop, recommends taking a look at the System for Automated Geoscientific Analyses (SAGA) site. Finally, if analyzing geographic data in a conventional database sounds interesting, PostGIS "spatially enables" the PostgreSQL relational database.

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