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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.

There are some data editing functions within Fusion Tables, although changing more than a few individual cell entries can quickly become tedious. You can also join tables (which is important when the data you want to map is in multiple tables), and filter, sort and add columns and so on. There are also options to allow others to make comments on the data itself.

Mapping goes beyond just placing points, as many of us are accustomed to with Google Maps. Fusion tables can also map multiple polygons with variations in color based on underlying data, such as this intensity map showing the percentage of households with Internet access by state from 2007 U.S. Census bureau data.

The Knight Digital Media Center notes that a handy undocumented feature allows the use of Fusion Table's "templating" export to generate a JSON file from data in other formats. JSON is required by some APIs and JavaScript libraries.

Unlike IBM's Many Eyes, Google lets you designate your data as private or unlisted as well as public, although your data still resides on Google's servers -- a benefit or drawback, depending on whether server bandwidth costs or data privacy is more important to you.

What's cool: Fusion Tables offers relatively quick charting and mapping, including geographic information system (GIS) functions to analyze data by geography. The service also automatically geocodes addresses, which is useful when trying to place numerous points on a map. This is an excellent tool for beginners and advanced beginners to use to get comfortable with analyzing data; it's also a good fit for people who don't program. For more advanced users, there's an API.

Drawbacks: Functionality, customization and data capacity are all limited compared with desktop applications or custom code, and interacting with large data sets on the site can be sluggish. And it has its limitations -- the site choked on March 11, the day of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. (It is still a Google Labs beta project.)

Skill level: Beginner.

Runs on: Any Web browser.

Learn more: A Google Fusion Tables tour and several tutorials are available. We've also got some examples of what it can do in our story "H-1B Visa Data: Visual and Interactive Tools." Also see the Fusion Tables Example Gallery.

Impure

What it does: Impure is sort of a Yahoo Pipes for data visualization, designed for creating numerous types of highly polished graphical representations of data using a drag-and-drop workspace. The service includes a library of objects and various methods, and -- as with Yahoo Pipes -- it allows you to click and drag to connect modules so that the output of one becomes the input of another. It was developed by Spanish analytics firm Bestiario.

 

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