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8 cool tools for data analysis, visualization and presentation

Sharon Machlis | March 28, 2012
Reporters wrangle all sorts of data, from analyzing property tax valuations to mapping fatal accidents -- and, here at Computerworld, for stories about IT salaries and H-1B visas. In fact, tools used by data-crunching journalists are generally useful for a wide range of other, non-journalistic tasks -- and that includes software that's been specifically designed for newsroom use. And, given the generally thrifty culture of your average newsroom, these tools often have the added appeal of little or no cost.

Skill level: Expert

Runs on: Any Windows, Mac or Linux system with Python installed.

Learn more: The documentation includes an easy-to-follow tutorial. There's also a brief introductory slide presentation that was given at the NICAR conference last month.

Related tools: Google Refine is a desktop application that can do some rudimentary file analysis as well as its core task of data cleaning; and The R Project for Statistical Computing can do more powerful statistical analysis on CSV and other files.

DataTables

What it does: This popular jQuery plug-in (which was designed and created by Allan Jardine) creates sortable, searchable HTML tables from a variety of data sources -- say, an existing, static HTML table, a JavaScript array, JSON or server-side SQL.

What's cool: In addition to sortable tables, results can be searched in real time (results are narrowed further with each search-entry keystroke).

Drawbacks: Search capability is fairly basic and cannot be narrowed by column or by using wildcard or Boolean searches.

Skill level: Expert

Runs on: JavaScript-enabled Web browsers

Learn more: Numerous examples on the DataTables site show many ways to use this plug-in.

FreeDive

What it does: This alpha project from the Knight Digital Media Center at UC Berkeley turns a Google Docs spreadsheet into an interactive, sortable database that can be posted on the Web.

What's cool: In addition to text searching, you can include numerical range-based sliders. Usage is free. End users can easily create their own databases from spreadsheets without writing code.

FreeDive's chief current attraction is the ability to create databases without programming; however, freeDive source code will be posted and available for use once the project is more mature. That could appeal to IT departments seeking a way to offer this type of service in-house, allowing end users to turn a Google Doc into a filterable, sortable Web database using the Google Visualization API, Google Query Language, JavaScript and jQuery -- without needing to manually generate that code.

Drawbacks: My test application ran into some intermittent problems; for example, it wouldn't display my data list when using the "show all records" button. This is an alpha project, and should be treated as such.

In addition, the current iteration limits spreadsheets to 10 columns and a single sheet. One column must have numbers, so this won't work for text-only information. The search widget is currently limited to a few specific choices of fields to search, although this might increase as the project matures. (A paid service like Caspio would offer more customization.) The nine-step wizard might get cumbersome after frequent use.

Skill level: Advanced beginner.

Runs on: Current Web browsers

 

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