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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.

Learn more: See the Quick Tutorial on the OpenLayers site.

Temporal data analysis

If time is an important component of your data, traditional timeline visualizations may show patterns, but they don't allow for sophisticated analysis or a great deal of interaction. That's where this project comes in.

TimeFlow

What it does: This desktop software is for analyzing data points that involve a time component. In a demo I wrote about last summer, creators Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg -- the pair behind the Many Eyes project who are now working at Google -- showed how TimeFlow can generate visual timelines from text files, with entries color- and size-coded for easy pattern spotting. It also allows the information to be sorted and filtered, and it gives some statistical summaries of the data.

What's cool: TimeFlow makes it incredibly easy to interact with data in various ways, such as switching views or filtering by criteria such as date ranges or earthquakes of magnitude 8 or more. The timeline view offers a slider so you can zero in on a time period. While many applications can plot bar graphs, fewer also offer calendar views. And unlike Web-based Google Fusion Tables, TimeFlow is a desktop application that makes it quick and painless to edit individual entries.

Drawbacks: This is an alpha release designed to help individual reporters doing investigative work. There are no facilities for publishing or sharing results other than taking a screen snapshot, and additional development appears unlikely in the near future.

Skill level: Beginner.

Runs on: Desktop systems running Java 1.6, including Windows and Mac OS X.

Learn more: Check out Top tips.

Note: If you're looking to publish visualized timelines, better options include Google Fusion Tables, VIDI or the SIMILE Timeline widget.

Text/word clouds

Some data visualization geeks think word clouds are either not very serious or not very original. You can think of them as the tiramisu of visualizations -- once trendy, now overused. But I still enjoy these graphics that display each word from a text file once, with the size of the words varying depending on how often each one appears in the source.

IBM Word-Cloud Generator

What it does: Several tools mentioned previously can create word clouds, including Many Eyes and the Google Visualization API, as well as the website Wordle (which is a handy tool for making word clouds from websites instead of text files). But if you're looking for easy desktop software dedicated to the task, IBM's free Word-Cloud desktop application fits the bill.

What's cool: This is a quick, fun and easy way to find frequency of words in text.

 

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