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22 free tools for data visualization and analysis

Sharon Machlis | Jan. 3, 2012
There are many tools around to help turn data into graphics, but they can carry hefty price tags.

Skill level: Beginner.

 

Runs on: Web browsers enabled for Flash or HTML 5 Canvas.

Learn more: Its title notwithstanding, the four-minute video "How OpenHeatMap Can Help Journalists" offers a clear explanation for anyone interested in using the service. You can also view samples on the OpenHeatMap Gallery and check out this Guardian interactive map of where Facebook is used.

OpenLayers

What it does: OpenLayers is a JavaScript library for displaying map information. It's aimed at providing functionality similar to those big companies' code libraries -- but with open-source code. OpenLayers works with OpenStreetMap and other maps, as this tutorial about use with Google shows.

Other projects build on it to add functionality or ease of use, such as GeoExt, which adds more GIS capabilities. For users who are comfortable hand-coding JavaScript and prefer not to use a commercial platform such as Google or Bing, this can be a compelling option.

Drawbacks: OpenLayers is not yet as developed or as easy to use as, say, Google Maps. The project page notes that it is "still undergoing rapid development."

Skill level: Expert.

Runs on: Any Web browser.

Learn more: Try this OpenLayers Simple Example. A good sample is Ushahidi's Haiti map.

There are other JavaScript libraries for overlaying information on maps, such as Polymaps. And there are a number of other mapping platforms, such as Google Maps, which offers numerous mapping APIs; Yahoo Maps Web Services, with its own APIs; the Bing Maps platform and APIs; and GeoCommons.

OpenStreetMap

What it does: OpenStreetMap is somewhat like the Wikipedia of the mapping world, with various features such as roads and buildings contributed by users worldwide.

What's cool: The main attraction of OpenStreetMap is its community nature, which has led to a number of interesting uses. For example, it is compatible with the Ushahidi mobile platform used to crowdsource information after the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. (While Ushahidi can use several different providers for the base map layer, including Google and Yahoo, some project creators feel most comfortable sticking with an open-source option.)

Drawbacks: As with any project accepting public input, there can be issues with contributors' accuracy at times (such as the helicopter landing pad someone once placed in my neighborhood -- it's actually quite a few miles away). Although, to be fair, I've encountered more than one business listing on Google Maps that was woefully out of date. In addition, the general look and feel of the maps isn't quite as polished as commercial alternatives.

Skill level: Advanced beginner to intermediate.

Runs on: Any Web browser.

 

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