Thing 13: Making information beautiful

A picture is worth a thousand words. Standard film runs through 24 frames per second. On this basis, turning your thesis into a film should allow you to communicate it approximately 15 times in a minute.

Efficiency aside, make data approachable through visualisation techniques is increasingly important – and getting easier all the time. There are now many tools to help you turn your information into maps, animations or charts, making it much easier to grab the attention of your audience, explain complicated ideas, and demonstrate the impact of your research.


‘It’s basically a knitting pattern’
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Getting started

Google Public Data Explorer
Google Public Data Explorer is a tool developed by Google Labs that makes large datasets easy to explore, visualize and understand. It offers a simple way of generating different views and graphs (e.g. bar charts, line graphs, etc.) to better understand and present data.

Currently, a range of public data from organisations and academic institutions – including the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Eurostat, and Statistics Iceland – are available for users to explore interactively. You can also upload your own datasets, using the Dataset Publishing Language (DSPL) format, to Google Public Data Explorer for visualisation and exploration.

It is important to note that you will not be able to export data, only manipulate them within the Google Data Explorer environment. However, you can embed the data as part of a website or email the link to someone else. The tool produces interactive, animated graphics using the four available chart formats.

Gapminder is a Swedish foundation aiming to make social science data on global issues freely available, using animated, interactive graphs. Their visualization software package is particularly good for enlivening statistical presentations.

Gapminder is powered by a software called Trendalyzer (which is owned and licensed by Google) and comes with a staggering range of data collected worldwide, on subjects from national economies to AIDS. At time of writing they are trialling a new way of accessing their datasets, adding to the 519 different indicators already available.

It is also possible to use Gapminder to display data over a map so the statistical changes can be seen geographically. However, it has a limited ability to upload and visualize private datasets (possibly via the use of Google Docs) with certain functionalities (e.g. map) not supported.

Tableau Public
Tableau Public is a free desktop tool for generating interactive data visualization, graphs and reports on the Internet. You can download it from Surrey software using your Surrey login details. You can use this application to analyse any type of structured dataset and can publish the work to Tableau Public web servers, where they will be readily accessible to the general public.

Tableau Public is an advanced desktop tool for people who don’t have programming skills but still want to create highly interactive data visualisations on the web. It offers a ‘visual data window’ that allows you to connect different data sources by simply pointing and clicking. You can also apply various filters before exporting the data. It can connect to Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access, and multiple text file formats, but has a limit of 1,000,000 rows of data in any single file.

The published data saved to Tableau Public is accessible by the general public but you can remove your content later if needed. There are also paid versions of Tableau software (Tableau Personal and Tableau Professional) that allow you to save your visualization works locally. Udacity run an online course that you may wish to explore further.

Most of the tools discussed here use publicly available datasets for generating the visualisations and graphs. When using a tool that allows you to upload your own data collection, for instance, Tableau Public, you need to consider if there are any restrictions on those data being hosted on a public server.


“Finally an accurate map of my caffeine intake”
Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash


We’d encourage you to have a play around with one or more of these pieces of software. Get to grips with what is possible, and consider how you might use it in your own presentations or teaching. If you’re able to create something, why not share it on your blog this week?


Some inspiring ideas and further discussion of visualising data:

‘The Art and Science of Animating Life’ [The Guardian]

‘15 Data Visualizations That Will Blow Your Mind’ [Udacity, blog]

‘The Power And Danger Of Data Visualization’ [bounteous]

‘Teaching Students to Focus on the Data in Data Visualization’ [Joanna Wolfe]

Author: rdpsurrey

Providing personal and professional development opportunities to researchers at the University of Surrey.

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