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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.

Not surprisingly, all that functionality comes at a cost: Tableau's learning curve is fairly steep compared to that of, say, Fusion Tables. Even with the drag-and-drop interface, it'll take more than an hour or two to learn how to use the software's true capabilities, although you can get up and running doing simple charts and maps before too long.

Skill level: Advanced beginner to intermediate.

Runs on: Windows 7, Vista, XP, 2003, Server 2008, 2003.

Learn more: There are seven short training videos on the Tableau site, where you can also find downloadable data files that you can use to follow along.

You can see a sample in our article "Tech Unemployment Climbs; Self-employment Steady."

Many Eyes

A pioneer in Web-based data visualization, IBM's Many Eyes project combines graphical analysis with community, encouraging users to upload, share and discuss information. It's extremely easy to use and very well documented, including suggestions on when to use what kind of visual data representation. Many Eyes includes more than a dozen output options -- from charts, graphics and word clouds to treemaps, plots, network diagrams and some limited geographic maps.

You'll need a free account to upload and post data, although anyone can browse. Formatting is basic: For most visualizations, the data must be in a tab-separated text file with column headers in the first row.

It took me about three minutes to create a bar chart of top H-1B visa employers.

It took perhaps another minute to create a treemap of the same data.

What's cool: Visualization can't get much easier, and the results look considerably more sophisticated than you'd expect based on the minimal amount of effort needed to create them. Plus, the list of possible visualization types includes explanations of the types of data each one is best suited for.

Drawbacks: Both your visualizations and your data sets are public on the Many Eyes site and can be easily downloaded, shared, reposted and commented upon by others. This can be great for certain types of users -- especially government agencies, nonprofits, schools and other organizations that want to share visualizations on someone else's server budget -- but an obvious problem for others. (IBM does offer a contact form for businesses interested in hosting their own version of the software.) In addition, customization is limited, as is data file size (5MB).

Skill level: Beginner.

Runs on: Java and any modern Web browser that can display Flash.

Learn more: IBM's website features pages explaining data formatting for Many Eyes and visualization choices.

You can see some featured visualizations on the Many Eyes home page or browse through some of the tens of thousands of uploads. One interesting map shows popular surnames in the U.S. from the 2000 Census by Martin Wattenberg, one of the creators of Many Eyes.

 

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