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Data Visualization

Resources and information about data visualization at the University of Calgary and beyond.

The software tools listed here is by no means a complete catalog of all visualization tools.  This list focuses on popular tools that are freely available to students and scholars at the University of Calgary.  

Note that there is no perfect visualization tool.  For a nice comparison between tools and the associated trade-offs see What I Learned Creating One Chart using 24 Different Tools by Lisa Charlotte Rost.

General purpose visualization software refers to tools that make it possible to create a wide variety of charts.  Most of these tools also can make use of a wide variety of different data types/sources.

  • Excel - available on all Mac & PC university computers, Excel is an often familiar tool that makes it simple to create common charts (e.g., bars, lines, scatterplots, pies, etc.) from spreadsheet data.  Experts in Excel can create very customized and complex visualizations if they're willing to invest the time and effort to do so.
  • Tableau - an advanced visual analytics suite that supports a variety of chart types, maps, dashboards, and can produce interactive output for the web.  A free academic license is available from Tableau.  There is also a free version (Tableau Public), but be careful as all data used in the free version is uploaded to public servers.  Tableau a nicely design interface that makes it easy to customize your visualizations.
  • PowerBI - is another visual analytics suite (created by Microsoft) that supports a variety of chart types, maps, dashboards, and can produce interactive output for the web.  There is a free version, while the paid "Pro" version enables sharing visualizations & workspaces over the web and with other PowerBI users.
  • Flourish - aimed towards data journalists this tool focuses on data storytelling.  Flourish provides support for a variety of interesting chart types and operates through a web interface.  The free version allows you to share visuals online, but a relatively pricey subscription is needed ($69/month) if you wish to keep your data private.
  • Datawrapper - another online tool that can create a variety of chart types and maps with expansive capacity for customization.  Free version allows you to share your visualizations (with small Datawrapper attribution at the bottom of your visualization) as well as export a png image.  The paid subscription is needed to export vector graphics (svg/pdf), to collaborate with more than 10 other people, or to make use of their API.
  • RAWGraphs - web-based tool that can process csv, tsv, or json data to create a variety (20+) of charts.  Has some uncommon chart types such as parallel coordinates, alluvial diagrams, voronoi tessellations, and streamgraphs.  Exports charts as SVG that you can edit and customize in vector graphics software (e.g., Adobe Illustrator).
  • Math & Statistics software - includes R, MATLAB, Mathematica,and SPSS.  All of these tools (available freely or through campus IT) have capabilities to assist in processing your data and creating visualizations.  Speaking generally these tools have high learning curves so make use of them if you need the statistical/mathematical power, or if you are already familiar with them.  It's often possible to use these tools to process your data and perform analysis and then export this processed data to a visualization tool with more visual capabilities.
  • Paraview is a general purpose 3D visualization tool designed to handle extremely large datasets.  Visuals can be created interactively or via Paraview's scripting/batch processing (useful for large datasets where interaction becomes too slow).  Supports isosurfaces, cutting planes, streamlines, glyphs, volume rendering, clipping, height maps, and more.
  • VisIt is another general purpose scientific visualization tool.  It supports 80 visualization techniques (contours, mesh, slices, volumes, molecules, etc) and can read over 110 different file formats. 
  • VMD (Visual Molecular Dynamics) is an open-source molecular visualization program for displaying, animating, and analyzing large biomolecular systems.

Text Analysis

  • Voyant - a web-based tool designed to facilitate reading and interpretive practices for digital humanist students and scholars.  Can create a variety of visualizations based on text data including word clouds, bubblelines, textual arcs, word trees, stream graphs, scatterplots, and more.

Graphs & Networks

  • Gephi - open source software that can handle 50K nodes and over a million edges.  Gephi can handle and animate dynamic networks (networks that change over time) and outperforms other tools when working with large networks.
  • Cytoscape - open source project aimed more supporting biology applications than Gephi, also can create graphs and network diagrams with large numbers of nodes and edges.  Cytoscape also can work with more input formats and features plugins that add additional functionality.
  • Tulip - is another open source network visualization tool with the most self-explanatory interface of the three tools listed here.  Another notable feature of tulip is that it supports edge-bundling (grouping of edges together). 

Timelines

  • Timeline JS - creates a simple web timeline from a google sheet that incorporates pictures, descriptions in addition to a horizontal timeline. 
  • TimeMapper - is an extension of Timeline JS that also include a map where events are located with markers.

Colour

  • ColorBrewer - is a great resource for creating palettes of colours for use on a map or other visualization.  Also can provide advice on choosing palettes that work well for colourblind people, that are printer friendly, and that are photocopy safe.
  • Colorgorical - is a more advanced tool that incorporates measures such as perceptual distance.  It also allows you to start with a colour (or several) and then assigns additional colours to the palette automatically based on the selected options.
  • I Want Hue - another online tool for creating colour palettes with a colourblind safe setting.

Programming

  • Processing is a programming environment designed for artists, designers, and others who have never created code before.  Good tutorials and support for creating interactive visuals.
  • P5.js builds on Processing (and can use Processing code) but it operates within a web browser rather than as a stand-alone application.

APIs

  • Google Charts - Charting library provided for free by google with wide variety of chart types (29+) with output in HTML5 and SVG.  Lacks some of the customization/animation/interaction elements supported by other libraries. 
  • HighCharts - popular charting library with support for interactive visualizations.  More powerful than google charts, easier to use than D3.  Free for personal and academic use.
  • D3 - steep learning curve but very powerful library for creating interactive and animated visualizations.  Very widely used, has a gallery with huge variety of examples to start from.

Approximately 80% or more of any visualization project is taken up in working with your data.  These are a few tools that may help in this process.

  • Data Wrangler / Trifacta - Data wrangler is a Stanford/Berkeley Research project that makes it easy to interactively clean and transform your data.  It can handle 1000 rows for data, for bigger datasets work with a subset of the data on the wrangler website to setup the processing and then use wrangler to export a script file that will process your entire dataset.  Trifacta is the commercial continuation of this project that is free  for datasets < 100 MB.
  • OpenRefine - is an open-source, free tool for cleaning up messy data.  It excels at normalizing data (e.g., imagine manually entered country names where the USA is spelled and/or abbreviated in 10s if not 100s of different ways - open refine can quickly fix these problems).  
  • Tabula - extracts data-tables from PDF files into easy to work with text file or spreadsheet.

More Visualization Tools?

Visualizing Data provides a very comprehensive list of visualization tools and software (120+ items listed).

Is there a great visualization tool that is available (free or academically licensed) and useful for students or scholars that you think should be added to this list?  Please email any suggestions to jdlbrosz@ucalgary.ca.

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