Many have proclaimed this the era of “big data,” in which the ability to capture and analyze vast quantities of digital information will revolutionize many aspects of our lives. Others see it as hype, pointing out that it’s nothing new, and even small bits of data can hold value.
But whether you like your data small, medium or large, it’s often most easily consumed in visual form. Enter data visualization. Most of us know them best as “infographics,” but the truth is, there’s more than one way to visually display your data.
Depending on the nature of your data, this could be a simple 2D line chart plotting corporate profits and losses, or a 3D surface graph, depicting complex natural phenomena. Either way, designers can choose from a host of tools for creating and editing these graphic images.
From online and open-source data visualization options to create-your-own infographic software, there’s something for everyone in the world of eye-catching data representation.
Data Visualization Tools + Infographic Software: Get In the Know
Our first data visualization tool is a good choice if you frequently create charts but don’t want to invest the time in learning a high-end statistical-analysis package. This program offers a wide selection of 2D and 3D chart types, plus a simple a set of drawing tools for modifying chart elements or adding new ones. You can import data from Microsoft Excel or other sources, or create datasets internally using a built-in spreadsheet.
What if you want to add some pizzazz to your data visualization? Export charts in EPS or PDF format and modify them in Adobe Illustrator or other vector-graphics programs. PDF generally works best because elements are fully editable, though you may lose some text formatting. However, PDFs imported into the Mac version of Illustrator tend to be overly complex, with numerous extraneous clipping paths — it would be better if the program exported SVG files, which are much cleaner. The program can also export charts to bitmapped formats, including TIFF, JPEG and PNG.
At $299, it’s a bit pricey, so I would start with LibreOffice (see below) and then consider DeltaGraph only if you need chart types not included in the office suite. A free trial version is available on the website.
Vector-graphics programs such as Adobe Illustrator are ideal for working with data visualizations because you can edit each chart element as a separate object. In most cases, you’ll want to create the chart in a spreadsheet or charting application and then import it into Illustrator. However, you can also use Illustrator’s Graph tools to create any one of nine chart types from within the program. Just draw a marquee where you want the chart to appear and Illustrator opens a small worksheet where you can enter data or import it. Click the “Apply” button, and Illustrator automatically builds the graph. The data remains live, so any changes to the values are automatically reflected in the chart elements.
This tool has its frustrations. Illustrator recognizes each chart as a special “graph object,” and as long as it remains in that form, your ability to modify the elements is limited. If you ungroup the graph, Illustrator treats it like any other set of objects, but then you lose the ability to modify the data. It’s a handy way to build simple charts from within the program, but for anything complicated, you’ll want to build the chart in a separate application and add your flourishes in Illustrator.
Illustrator’s primary competitor, at least among Windows users, is Corel Draw. The primary open-source alternative is Inkscape. Neither has built-in graph-building tools, but both can edit charts created in other programs.
LibreOffice is one of the leading open-source alternatives to Microsoft Office. Charting features are available in LibreOffice Calc, which is similar to Excel, as well as LibreOffice Draw, a simple vector-graphics application. Both programs can export charts as SVG files, a huge advantage if you want to modify the charts in Illustrator. However, the SVG exporter in the Windows version of Calc has a bug that generates unreadable files. Instead, you have to export the chart as a PDF file, and then use Draw to convert that to SVG.
Draw’s interface for creating charts is a bit clunky. When you choose the Insert Chart command, the program places a bar chart with dummy text into the layout; then you use the charting features to change the chart type and add data. However, it works well once you get used to it, and you always have the option of creating charts in Calc.
The main drawbacks are the same ones that apply to many other open-source programs — the interface isn’t as polished as what you’ll find in Adobe or Microsoft products, and the latter also benefit from a broader ecosystem of books, trainers and other resources. And the selection of chart types isn’t as extensive as in DeltaGraph or Excel. Many chart types can be converted to 3D, but if you export these, the chart is rendered as a bitmap, limiting your ability to make modifications in Illustrator.
LibreOffice has its roots in OpenOffice, an older open-source office suite that’s now managed by The Apache Software Foundation. The two suites have similar features, but when it comes to charting, LibreOffice wins due to its superior export options. In this regard, it’s also superior to Microsoft Excel, especially on the Mac side.
Excel’s chart-building features are comparable to those in DeltaGraph, and they’re more intuitive to use. The program has a large selection of chart types, including surface charts, along with extensive features for modifying chart elements. If you’re already using Microsoft Office, you’ll find that it’s well suited for most data visualization projects. This is especially true with Excel 2013 for Windows, which adds some notable enhancements, such as chart styles and a feature that suggests the best charts for the data you’ve selected.
The trick is getting those charts into Illustrator for additional changes. On the Windows side, your best option is to save the worksheet as a PDF file, which requires Excel 2010 or later — or Adobe’s Acrobat PDFMaker plug-in. These files come into Illustrator relatively clean, though you’ll likely find yourself deleting some unnecessary clipping paths.
However, if you try to copy and paste even a simple bar or pie chart, every path is buried within a clip group with an extraneous clipping path, making the file needlessly complex. On the Mac side, this happens whether you copy and paste or try the PDF export. With both versions, charts with 3D effects, including bevels, will import as bitmaps.
Given its extensive charting options, the Windows version of Excel is a good choice, especially if you already have Office. But Mac users who want to create charts for use in Illustrator will be better off with LibreOffice and its SVG export options.
Interactive Data Visualization
So far, I’ve limited the discussion to programs that create static charts and graphs. But numerous tools are available for building interactive data visualizations — including those that use live data feeds, so the visuals change in real time. Classic examples are the interactive maps you see on news sites on Election Night, where you click on a state or county to see live voting tallies.
Whether or not you’ve tried your hand at data visualization before, the programs and tools reviewed here will give you a jump start on your first compelling infographic. It’s pretty clear that in 2013 most of us would much absorb data from a catchy, creative infographic than scanning and synthesizing pages of data.
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