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8 cool tools for data analysis, visualization and presentation

Sharon Machlis | March 28, 2012
Reporters wrangle all sorts of data, from analyzing property tax valuations to mapping fatal accidents -- and, here at Computerworld, for stories about IT salaries and H-1B visas. In fact, tools used by data-crunching journalists are generally useful for a wide range of other, non-journalistic tasks -- and that includes software that's been specifically designed for newsroom use. And, given the generally thrifty culture of your average newsroom, these tools often have the added appeal of little or no cost.

Learn more: The freeDive site includes several video tutorials at the bottom of the home page as well as test data to try out the wizard.

Related tools: Caspio is a well-established commercial alternative. For a JavaScript alternative with more control over the table created from a Google Docs spreadsheet, you might want to investigate Tabletop, which makes a Google Docs spreadsheet accessible to JavaScript code.

Highcharts JS

What it does: This JavaScript library from Highsoft Solutions provides an easy way to create professional-looking interactive charts for the Web. JQuery, Mootools or Prototype required.

What's cool: With Highcharts, users can mouse over items for more details; they can also click on items in the chart legend to turn them on and off. There are many different chart types available, from basic line, bar, column and area charts to zoomable time series; each comes with six stylesheet options. Little customization is needed to get a sleek-looking chart -- and charts will display on iOS and Android devices as well as on desktop browsers.

Drawbacks: Highcharts, like Google Maps, does have a distinctive look, so you may want to customize the Highcharts stylesheets so your visualizations don't look like numerous other Highcharts on the Web. While charts displayed fine for me on an Android phone, they weren't interactive (they were on an iPad).

And unlike most JavaScript/jQuery libraries, Highcharts is free only for non-commercial use, although a site-wide license for many companies costs only $80. (The cost jumps to $300 per developer seat in some cases -- for example, if charts are customized for individual users.) Rendering can be slow in some older browsers (notably Internet Explorer 6 and 7).

Skill level: Intermediate to Expert.

Runs on: Web browsers

Learn more: The Highcharts demo gallery includes easy-to-view source code; the documentation explains other options.

Related tools: Google Chart Tools create static image charts and graphs or more interactive JavaScript-based visualizations; there are also JavaScript libraries such as Protovis and the JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit. Exhibit is an MIT Simile Project spinoff designed for presenting data on the Web with filtering, sorting and interactive capabilities.

Mr. Data Converter

What it does: How often do you have data in one format -- while your application needs it in another? New York Times interactive graphics editor Shan Carter ran into this situation often enough that he coded a tool that converts comma- or tab-delimited data into nine different formats. It's available as either a service on the Web or an open source tool.

What's cool: Mr. Data Converter can generate XML, JSON, ASP/VBScript or basic HTML table formatting as well as arrays in PHP, Python (as a dictionary) and Ruby. It will even generate MySQL code to create a table (guessing at field formats based on the data) and insert your data. If your data is in an Excel spreadsheet, you don't need to save it as a CSV or TSV; you can just copy and paste it into the tool.

 

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