• What Visualization Tool/Software Should You Use? – Getting Started

    September 3, 2009  |  Design

    toolAre you looking to get into data visualization, but don't quite know where to begin?

    With all of the available tools to help you visualize data, it can be confusing where to start. The good news is, well, that there are a lot of (free) available tools out there to help you get started. It's just a matter of deciding which one suits you best. This is a guide to help you figure that out.
    Continue Reading

  • 40 Essential Tools and Resources to Visualize Data

    October 20, 2008  |  Software

    One of the most frequent questions I get is, "What software do you use to visualize data?" A lot of people are excited to play with their data, but don't know how to go about doing it or even start. Here are the tools I use or have used and resources that I own or found helpful for data visualization – starting with organizing the data, to graphs and charts, and lastly, animation and interaction.

    Organizing the Data

    by sleepy sparrow

    Data are hardly ever in the format that you need them to be in. Maybe you got a comma-delimited file and you need it to be in XML; or you got an Excel spreadsheet that needs to go into a MySQL database; or the data are stuck on hundreds of HTML pages and you need to get it all together in one place. Data organization isn't incredibly fun, but it's worth getting to know these tools/languages. The last thing you want is to be restricted by data format.


    PHP was the first scripting language I learned that was well-suited for the Web, so I'm pretty comfortable with it. I oftentimes use PHP to get CSV files into some XML format. The function fgetcsv() does just fine. It's also a good hook into a MySQL database or calling API methods.



    Most computer science types - at least the ones I've worked with - scoff at PHP and opt for Python mostly because Python code is often better structured (as a requirement) and has cooler server-side functions. My favorite Python toy is Beautiful Soup, which is an HTML/XML parser. What does that mean? Beautiful Soup is excellent for screen scraping.



    When I have a lot of data - like on the magnitude of the tends to hundreds of thousands - I use PHP or Python to stick it in a MySQL database. MySQL lets me subset on the data on pretty much any way I please.



    Ah, good old R. It's what statisticians use, and pretty much nobody else. Everyone else has it installed on their computer, but haven't gotten around to learning it. I use R for analysis. Sometimes though, I use it to extract useful subsets from a dataset if the conditions are more complex than those I'd use with MySQL and then export them as CSV files.


    Microsoft Excel

    We all know this one. I use Excel from time to time when my dataset is small or if I'm in a point-and-click mood. Continue Reading

  • How to Learn Actionscript (Flash) for Data Visualization

    April 21, 2008  |  Software

    A while back, I asked, "What is the best way to learn Actionscript for data visualization?" As I've had Actionscript staring me in the face for the past two weeks, I can attest to the idea that the best way to learn is by doing i.e. immersing yourself in a project with a deadline looming in the dark behind you. There have been, however, a few things that have made my life a little easier as I strive for coding nirvana.

    My Only Desktop Reference

    Essential Actionscript 3.0I have stacks of books on the floor, in the closet, and on my bookshelf, but there's one book that has stayed within in arm's reach as I learn - Colin Moock's Essential Actionscript 3.0. This is usually the first place I go to look when I'm stuck on a bug or am not sure where to begin. Moock's explanations are very clear and he provides plenty of useful examples without getting too specific.

    When I first started, I read the first section "Actionscript from the Ground Up," which helped me familiarize myself with core concepts like packages, classes, and just the basic ideas of how things work. I feel like one of the hardest parts of learning any programming language is figuring out how all the components talk to each other, so this first section helped a lot. I skimmed the rest of the book, and now it's my only desktop reference.

    I'm also starting to hear great things about Learning ActionScript 3.0: A Beginner's Guide by Shupe and Rosser, but I haven't got to look at it yet.

    Flare Visualization Toolkit

    FlareJeffrey Heer's Flare visualization toolkit seems to come out at just the right time specifically for me. Seriously, the timing couldn't have been better. For instant gratification, go through the tutorial, which covers a few Actionscript basics and straightforward examples for mainly, reading in data and animating and transitioning objects.

    After the tutorial, try to build some of your own visualizations and applying what you learned from the tutorial. Finally, when you're more comfortable, dive into the Flare code to see how things work.

    Modest Maps for Flexible Mapping

    Modest Maps
    For those interested in mapping, Modest Maps has helped me a good bit. From the site:

    Our intent is to provide a minimal, extensible, customizable, and free display library for discriminating designers and developers who want to use interactive maps in their own projects. Modest Maps provides a core set of features in a tight, clean package, with plenty of hooks for additional functionality.

    They're not lying. It provides the basic map functionality like pan and zoom, but it's open, so you can do whatever you want from there. I've been using Flare and Modest Maps together to take the best of both worlds, I guess you could say. There's also the Yahoo! Maps Actionscript API, but I haven't tried it. I don't know if it's as flexible as Modest, but I like the idea of owning all of my code.

    Adobe Flex Builder for Actionscript Development

    Flex Builder 3Flex Builder has been extremely helpful while coding. The name might suggest it's only for Flex projects, but it's pretty darn good for Actionscript projects. The serious Actionscript people I've talked to only seem to use Flex. The other option is to use your text editor of choice and install the free Flex SDK, but it's more complicated (and I've never tried it).

    The downside of Flex is that it's kind of expensive, pricing at just under $250 and even more for the pro version. However, on the flip side, Flex Builder Pro 3 is free to all education customers.

    Last Thoughts

    Finally, let's not forget about Adobe's Actionscript 3.0 language and components reference. In addition to Moock's book, this is the other indispensable resource. And of course there's all the online resources you'll find ala Google.

    This is pretty much what I've been immersed in for the past two weeks. It's definitely a sharp learning curve, but once I got the hang of things, it's been pretty fun and nice to see my data moving along.

    Anyways, I'm just now starting to kick the tires. I am sure there are many of you who have been at this for a while and who know a ton more than I do. What references or resources do you recommend for Flash/Actionscript beginners like myself?

  • How to Read (and Use) a Box-and-Whisker Plot

    February 15, 2008  |  Statistical Visualization

    Box-and-Whisker Plot LessonThe box-and-whisker plot is an exploratory graphic, created by John W. Tukey, used to show the distribution of a dataset (at a glance). Think of the type of data you might use a histogram with, and the box-and-whisker (or box plot, for short) could probably be useful.

    The box plot, although very useful, seems to get lost in areas outside of Statistics, but I'm not sure why. It could be that people don't know about it or maybe are clueless on how to interpret it. In any case, here's how you read a box plot.

    Reading a Box-and-Whisker Plot

    Box-and-Whisker Plot ExplainedLet's say we ask 2,852 people (and they miraculously all respond) how many hamburgers they've consumed in the past week. We'll sort those responses from least to greatest and then graph them with our box-and-whisker.

    Take the top 50% of the group (1,426) who ate more hamburgers; they are represented by everything above the median (the white line). Those in the top 25% of hamburger eating (713) are shown by the top "whisker" and dots. Dots represent those who ate a lot more than normal or a lot less than normal (outliers). If more than one outlier ate the same number of hamburgers, dots are placed side by side.

    Find Skews in the Data

    The box-and-whisker of course shows you more than just four split groups. You can also see which way the data sways. For example, if there are more people who eat a lot of burgers than eat a few, the median is going to be higher or the top whisker could be longer than the bottom one. Basically, it gives you a good overview of the data's distribution.

    That's all there is to it, so the next time you're thinking of making a bar graph or a histogram, think about using Tukey's beloved box-and-whisker plot too.

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