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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.

What's cool: Impure offers a highly visual interface for the task of creating visualizations -- which is not as common as you might expect. It has a sleek user interface and numerous modules, including quite a few APIs that are designed to pull data from the Web. It features numerous visualization types that are searchable by keywords like numeric, tables, nodes, geometry and map. And although it saves your workspaces to the Web, you can copy and save the code behind your workspaces locally, so you can back up your work or maintain your own libraries of code snippets.

Drawbacks: Users of Impure face a surprisingly steep learning curve despite its drag-and-drop functionality. The documentation is detailed in some areas, but lacking in others. For instance, while it was easy to find a list of APIs, it was more difficult to find basic instructions on how to use the workspace -- or even figure out that there was a workspace, let alone how to use the various objects and methods.

Once you save your workspace, it's on the public Web, although it's unlikely that anyone else will be able to find it unless you share the URL. And I found some of the samples not all that helpful in understanding the underlying data, even if they were visually striking.

Skill level: Intermediate.

Runs on: Any Web browser.

Learn more: To get started, I'd suggest the videos "Interface Basics" (7 minutes) and "Workspaces and Code." You can find a sample called The Pay Gap Between Men and Women Mapped at the website of British newspaper The Guardian.

Tableau Public

What it does: This tool can turn data into any number of visualizations, from simple to complex. You can drag and drop fields onto the work area and ask the software to suggest a visualization type, then customize everything from labels and tool tips to size, interactive filters and legend display.

What's cool: Tableau Public offers a variety of ways to display interactive data. You can combine multiple connected visualizations onto a single dashboard, where one search filter can act on numerous charts, graphs and maps; underlying data tables can also be joined. And once you get the hang of how the software works, its drag-and-drop interface is considerably quicker than manually coding in JavaScript or R for most users, making it more likely that you'll try additional scenarios with your data set. In addition, you can easily perform calculations on data within the software.

Drawbacks: In the free version of Tableau's business intelligence software, your visualization and data must reside on Tableau's site. Whenever you save your work, it gets sent up to the public website -- which means you can't save work in progress without running the risk that it will be seen before it's ready (while Tableau's site won't deliberately expose your work, it relies on security by obscurity -- so someone could see your work if they guess your URL). And once it's saved, viewers are invited to download your entire workbook with data. Upgrading to a single-user desktop edition costs $999.

 

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