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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.

Drawbacks: Only CSV or TSV formats can be input, as well as copying and pasting in data from Excel.

Skill level: Beginner

Runs on: JavaScript-enabled Web browsers

Learn more: You can follow Mr. Data Converter on Twitter at @mrdataconverter.

Related tools: Data Wrangler is a Web-based tool that reformats data to your specifications.

Panda Project

What it does: Panda is less about analyzing or presenting data than finding it amidst the pile of standalone spreadsheets scattered around an organization. It was specifically designed for newsrooms, but could be used by any organization where individuals collect information on their desktops that would be worth sharing. Billed as a "newsroom appliance," users can upload CSV or Excel files to Panda and then search across all available data sets or a within a single file.

What's cool: Panda makes it simple to give others access to information that's been sitting on individuals' hard drives in different stand-alone spreadsheets. Even non-technical users can easily upload and search data. Search is extremely fast, using ApacheSolr.

Drawbacks: Queries are basic -- you can't specify a particular column/field to search, so a search for "Washington" would bring back items containing both the place and a person's name. The required hosting platform is quite specific, requiring Ubuntu 11.1. (Panda's developers have created an Amazon Community Image with the required server setup for hosting on Amazon Web Services EC2.)

Skill level: Beginner (Advanced Beginner for administration)

Runs on: Must be hosted on Amazon EC2 or a server running Ubuntu 11.10. Clients can use any Web browser.

Learn more: Panda documentation, still in the works, gives basics on setup, configuration and use. Nieman Journalism Lab has some background on the project, which was funded by a $150,000 Knight News Challenge grant.

PowerPivot

What it does: This free plugin from Microsoft allows Excel 2010 to handle massively large data sets much more efficiently than the basic version of Excel does. It also lets Excel act like a relational database by adding the capacity to truly join columns in different tables instead of relying on Excel's somewhat cumbersome VLOOKUP command. PowerPivot includes its own formula language, Data Analysis Expressions (DAX), which has a similar syntax to Excel's conventional formulas.

What's cool: PowerPivot can handle millions of records -- data sets that would usually grind PowerPivot-less Excel to a halt. And by joining tables, you can make more "intelligent" pivot tables and charts to explore and visualize large data sets with Excel's point-and-click interface.

Drawbacks: This is limited to Excel 2010 on Windows systems. Also, SQL jocks might prefer using a true relational database for multi-table data in order to build complex data queries.

 

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