Data, data, everywhere. It comes from public bodies, social networks, personal devices, healthcare systems, media sources, etc. The technological revolution of the last two decades has cracked open wellsprings of data that never stop giving.
Data visualization will be an important craft/technology over the coming years. As pointed out in Stanford University’s excellent video, we are still in the early days of the medium, and there are currently more bad examples of ‘dataviz’ than good.
Let’s take a look at some examples of infographics, which are author-crafted visual representations of data.
The visual.ly showcase features many good examples of 2-D infographics (typically poster-with-chart style). But I believe interactive infographics have more potential.
Some of the best examples of interactive infographics come from the New York Times, such as this chart of unemployment in the US or this cute interactive breakdown of household composition in the US.
Another example, from data journalist David McCandless, compares health products based on scientific merit.
I decided to see whether I could produce an interactive infographic, using the two most popular free dataviz tools on the web.
I got some data — a spreadsheet of the recently most popular girls names in Ireland, based on registered births between 1998 and 2010 — from the CSO.
The first tool I tried was IBM’s Many Eyes. I found it quick, easy and intuitive to use. I just had to paste my data from a spreadsheet into the web-based interface.
Many Eyes offered me a range of different ways to display the data, but the one that seemed most intuitive to me was a bubble chart. The whole process (once I had registered with the site) took about 15 minutes, and you can see the resulting infographic here.
My verdict: The software was easy to use. As for the finished chat — the bubble chart is a good visualization and one that I think is a good idea. However, I would have preferred to have offered the user a time-axis slider, i.e. a way for the user to be able to see each bubble chart as part of an animation, which the user could either play, or manually progress through, by dragging a slider.
Next, I used the same data with Tableau Public. This is the free version of a $999 piece of software. The limitation is that your infographic and data, once saved, are publicly viewable on the Tableau site.
A desktop app, I found Tableau reasonably intuitive to use — although I consciously ignored menu items that seemed aimed at users with knowledge of charts and statistics.
One gripe was that Tableau wasn’t able to import my Excel file, for some unclear reason. However, when I converted to a .CVS file, it imported fine.
The choice of charts was limited — there was no bubble chart. In the end, I settled on a bar chart, which you can see here (registration required).
My verdict: Tableau was easy to use, but I felt I wasn’t tapping into its full potential, and its advanced features were daunting. As a non-statistician, perhaps I’m not Tableau’s target user.
I was able to manipulate the chart in different ways but, as with Many Eyes, I wasn’t 100% happy with the finished chart. I would have preferred to make the most popular names show up first — or to let the user order the names.
Update 30 Sep 2011: I have since discovered that an interactive area graph is a better format for telling a story about the relative popularity of baby names over time.
Flowing Data gives a tutorial on how to create such a graph using open source software libraries, but programming skills are required.
I would love to have software that
a) helped me (a beginner to data visualisation, but with UX/design skills) to select the optimal chart for the story I wanted to tell and,
b) helped me to create and refine that chart exactly as I wanted
Maybe I’ll have to design that software!