7 great data visualization tools for communicators and marketers

Tired of the same old charts and graphs? Yeah, well, so is your audience. Charge people up with interactive visuals that don’t require an advanced degree in programming.

Some of the most exciting content published today includes data visualization.

More than just charts or graphs, today’s tools allow journalists and communication professionals to provide interactive content in customizable and visually pleasing ways.

Great data visualization often requires coding, which not everyone can do. Fortunately, there are many newer data visualization tools that take care of the coding for you.

Without code your sample size could be limited (especially if you’re cutting and pasting from Excel), but as a communication professional you’ll be able to provide more engaging resources to journalists and to the public. Imagine the strength of your media pitch or the engagement of your content with a unique interactive chart or two to illustrate your points.

Let’s look at data visualization tools that anyone can use. As an example in each instance, I used 2010 fire incident data from Cincinnati for the data in my charts (about 12,000 rows of data). I didn’t demonstrate any bells and whistles, just a basic chart (when I could) to give you an idea of what each platform can do.

Here are some outstanding data visualization tools:

1. Raw

Raw is one of the most versatile out-of-the-box data visualization tools that you can use—and it’s free. It enables you to upload data from an Excel spreadsheet or paste from the source.

Raw offers you 13 unique visualization options that look very professional. (Its “Bump” chart for example is modeled after The New York Times’ visualizations.) All the variables are drag-and-drop from your dataset, and the visualization populates in real time to demonstrate what your visualization will look like as you’re building it.

One caveat: Raw uses a lot of computer resource to operate, so it’s helpful to close out programs and superfluous windows before building a chart with it.

Here’s a “Clustered Force Layout” chart:


2. Plotly

Plotly produces terrific interactive charts: line chart, scatter plot, bar chart, histogram and area plot.

You can upload data from a spreadsheet or cut and paste it (similar to Raw). The user experience of Plotly isn’t as intuitive as that of Raw. There are aspects of populating the graph that require tinkering, but it’s a powerful, effective tool for making these interactive forms of familiar graphs.

Plotly also boasts a collaborative network, so you can share your data and visualizations with co-workers. If you’re collaborating on data visualizations, this might be helpful.

Plotly is a freemium product, ranging from free to moderately expensive (depending upon your customization needs). Here’s a bar graph:


3. Timeline

Developed at the Northwestern University Knight Lab, Timeline is a smartly conceived data visualization tool. It doesn’t have a lot of customization features, but it’s superb for creating timelines, and it’s free.

Data has to be loaded in their specific format, which makes this a (relatively) labor intensive process. It’s hard to argue with the end result, however.

I chose not to parse data to create a unique timeline example, but here are three examples of timelines created with the product:

As you can see, this tool is widely used and looks pretty consistent from graph to graph.

4. Datawrapper

This is a straightforward visualization tool with a few neat bells and whistles. Uploading data can be done with a .csv file or by pasting from the source. I had trouble uploading the Cincinnati fire data, which may mean that you have to parse your data thoroughly before uploading to Datawrapper. Its sample datasets have a limited number of columns.

Datawrapper is not free of charge. Users must pay a monthly (12 euros) or annual fee (100 euros) to generate embedded graphs and download images of Datawrapper charts.

Despite its limitations, Datawrapper has the most intuitive interface of the tools I sampled.

5. Chartblocks

With this intuitive and easy-to-use data visualization tool, uploading data can be done with a spreadsheet or by pasting from the source. Chartblocks enables you to create interactive bar graphs, line graphs, area graphs, scatterplots and pie charts. Its usability is strong and customizable.

Like Raw, Chartblocks takes up a lot of computer resources when creating charts, which can slow an otherwise fast process.

Chartblocks is a freemium product. Below is a bar graph of fire incidents by day:


6. Google Fusion Tables

What post about tools would be complete without mentioning something from Google? Google Fusion Tables are the search giant’s solution for data visualization. It’s free, and it’s good.

Uploading of spreadsheets and pasted data is straightforward and fast. There is a slight learning curve to create charts and embed them, but once you figure out where things are, it’s a fantastic tool. Though not as flashy as other options, it is stable and fast, and the price is right.

Here’s a basic line-graph comparing number of fire incidents day to day:


7. My Heat Map

You might want to create a “heatmap” type of visualization to tell a specific story. My Heat Map offers a great step-by-step guide and customer service, and it’s the best looking of any of the heat map tools I looked at.

You can do one heat map with up to 20 data points for free, but then you have to spring for the subscription, which costs $20 a month.

At first I couldn’t see how to embed a map into my site. It’s not evident, but it’s easy. (A hat tip to My Heat Map for responding to my email.) To do so, put the enlarged map link into an iframe with size specifications. Here’s an example:


Here’s the finished product, an embedded heat map of birds of prey and their locations created by the Audubon society:


Others

The sites listed above are probably the best tools for data visualization without coding (at least in plain sight). Here are other tools that can help you create neat visuals for media pitches or to enhance your organic content:

  • IBM Watson Analytics. This powerful toolset allows for thorough visualization but feels like an internal tool rather than for public consumption. It is a free up to 0.5 GB and 50 columns.
  • Tableau. Tableau probably would warrant consideration in the list (it is an enterprise data visualization tool), but it is probably cost prohibitive to use for basic data visualization purposes. If you have it already, it’s a powerful tool (and the creators offer a free trial subscription).
  • Canva. Canva has become the hot site for cloud graphic design. Not only can you do some cool, creative things with Canva, but you can also embed and embellish a graph there, too.
  • Infogram. An intuitive infographic creation tool.
  • Microsoft Excel (Office 365). You don’t have to look outside your spreadsheet program to visualize data. There are plenty of visualization options available for you there as well (“charts” is located under the “insert” tab). These Excel add-ins may enable you to conduct data analysis and create a visualization in one program.

Data visualization is often a component of stellar content. Whether it’s for The New York Times or FiveThirtyEight or Mashable, data visualization enhances content and is increasingly prevalent in digital media circles.

Regardless of your technical aptitude you can create professional, interactive data visualizations using the tools listed above. Of course, the charts will be only as good as the data sets that inform them.

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision blog, where a version of this article first appeared. He also blogs at leaderswest. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.

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