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What is Data Visualization and why Should I use it?

area graph

An area graph published by FiveThirtyEight.

Data visualization is a way of exploring complex patterns or large quantities of data that cannot be easily perceived by looking at a table of numbers or reading paragraphs of text. The goal of data visualization is to communicate information more clearly, and it does so by employing our innate ability to recognize visual patterns in our environment.

Some data visualizations are exploratory in that they are created before any analysis is done on the data. Looking at a visual representation of our dataset can give us clues about what to focus on during analysis.

Some data visualizations are communicative in that they are created in order to present our analysis findings to an audience. Using visual patterns to represent patterns in data can be an effective way of explaining complex results.

Ultimately, data visualizations can more effectively answer questions, tell stories and put forth arguments than words alone.

Further reading: Few, S. (2013). Data Visualization for Human Perception. In The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed. Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org

Getting Started: Before You Visualize

Before you being a data visualization project, you will need to find a dataset to work with. In most cases, the dataset will also need to be cleaned and prepared a certain way in order for it to be compatible with the data visualization tool you want to use. Finally, you may need to learn how to use a new software program depending on the results you want to achieve.

Tools for General Data Visualization

tableau screenshot

Tableau

Tableau produces a wide variety of beautiful interactive visualizations and maps, and its drag-and-drop interface makes it easy to learn and use. A free academic license is available to students, instructors, and non-profit academic researchers. Publishing visualizations on the web requires a Tableau Public account. Public visualizations should not use private or personally identifiable information.

line and pie chart in Microsoft excel

Microsoft Excel

Because it is included in Microsoft Office, Excel is a familiar tool to many people. Instead of using default chart styles, users should take care to customize and refine their charts in Excel for best results.

bar chart created with Data Wrapper

Data Wrapper

Data wrapper is a free, easy-to-use, web-based data visualization tool that allows only basic customizations but renders visually attractive graphics. Charts built in Data Wrapper are meant to be embedded in a website.

bar chart created with Chart Blocks

Chart Blocks

Chart Blocks is an online visualization tool with a free plan that lets you build and host 30 charts at a time. All charts are publicly viewable, so private data should not be used.

area plot created with High Charts Cloud

Highcharts Cloud

Highcharts Cloud is a web-based interface for the Highcharts Javascript library. It allows you to create many types of interactive charts with deep customization, but new users may find it technically challenging. With a free plan, you can create an unlimited number of charts that can be shared and embedded in websites.

box plot created with Plotly

Plotly

Plotly is a robust, web-based data visualization system in which you can create not only individual charts and graphs, but interactive dashboards and even slide shows. Because of its scale, Plotly requires an annual subscription. However, programmers will find free Plotly libraries to use in R, Python and Javascript.