Thing 13 2014: Making information beautiful


This is a new ‘thing’ for 2014, representing the data-driven direction in which many of our outputs are taking. We’ll explore some simply tools for visualization of information.

Getting started

Google Public Data Explorer
Google Public Data Explorer is a tool developed by Google Labs that makes large datasets easy to explore, visualize and understand. It offers a simple way of generating different views and graphs (e.g. bar charts, line graphs, etc.) to better understand and present data.

Currently a range of public data (130 datasets as of 6 August 2014) from organizations and academic institutions—including US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Eurostat, Statistics Iceland, etc.—are available for users to explore interactively. You can also upload your own datasets, using the Dataset Publishing Language (DSPL) format, to Google Public Data Explorer for visualisation and exploration.

It is important to note that you will NOT be able to export data, only manipulate them within the Google Data Explorer environment. However, you can embed the data as part of a website or email the link to someone else. The tool produces interactive, animated graphics using the four available chart formats.

Gapminder is a visualization software package created by a Swedish Foundation to help enliven and disseminate freely available social science data using animated, interactive graphs.

Gapminder is powered by a software called Trendalyzer (which is owned and licensed by Google) and comes with a staggering range of data collected worldwide (519 datasets as of 6 August 2014), on subjects from national economies to AIDS.

It is also possible to use Gapminder to display data over a map so the statistical changes can be seen geographically. However, it has a limited ability to upload and visualize private datasets (possibly via the use of Google Docs) with certain functionalities (e.g. map) not supported.

Tableau Public
Tableau Public is a free desktop tool for generating interactive data visualization, graphs and reports onto the Internet. You can use this application to analyse any type of structured dataset, and can publish the work to Tableau Public web servers where they will be readily accessible to the general public.

Tableau Public is an advanced desktop tool for people who don’t have programming skills but still want to create highly interactive data visualisations on the web. It offers a ‘visual data window’ that allows you to connect different data sources by simply pointing and clicking. You can also apply various filters before exporting the data. Tableau Public can connect to Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access, and multiple text file formats but has a limit of 1,000,000 rows of data in any single file.

The published data saved to Tableau Public is accessible by the general public but the you can remove your content later if needed. There are also paid versions of Tableau software, namely Tableau Personal and Tableau Professional, that allow you to save your visualization works locally.

Most of the tools discussed here use publicly available datasets for generating the visualisations and graphs. When using a tool that allows you to upload your own data collection, for instance Tableau Public, you need to consider if these are any restrictions on those data being hosted on a public server.

Blog post

Think about the role of data in your research, and what formats you’re expected to present it in. Will any of these tools be useful? Tag your post thing 13.

2 thoughts on “Thing 13 2014: Making information beautiful

  1. The potential of these tools for use by undergraduates at our institution would be endless – same for the academics. It’s now my job as a librarian to make them aware of these sites and their potential. It’s not a case of hands on, but more a case of handing over.

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