So I confess that once upon a time, I paid for some of my living expenses through the fact that I knew how to work a computer for things like graphics and formatting. No, seriously, back in the early 90s, it made me stand out from other people, the fact that I knew how to work Lotus 1-2-3, Word and WordPerfect, dBase IV and, drumroll please, Harvard Graphics. At the time, I think it was version 3.0, and while people could do very basic graphs in Lotus, the real trick was to choose a variety of simple graphs in Harvard Graphics, add your data, and voila, you were good to go. Back in ’93, for my first job at DFAIT, we did a presentation for Cabinet where all the graphs were done in HG, in colour, and there were about 30 of them. Blew the Cabinet people away, colour slides. In government. Bear in mind that most departments had barely switched over from DOS to Windows, and we gave them a 60 page deck on the future of the Asia Pacific region. Bound.
Now, of course, most people do their graphs in Excel or Powerpoint. And I wanted to do one this week. I have 29 or so “goals” that I am tracking against “Level 1” progress, and I wanted some sort of cheap visualization of how I am doing towards reaching level 1. I started in Powerpoint, which really just replicates the software functionality of Excel, and while it was decent enough, I’m not a graph tweaking expert anymore. I used to be able to get HG get up and dance and look amazing…compared to the Excel graph I did, I feel like I regressed in technology.
So, I was curious. Are there any other data visualization tools out there that people use easily and, more importantly, are free? My friend Aliza mentioned Google Charts and I confess that I had heard it mentioned in passing, but since I had little use for it, I had never looked at it.
I should step back for a second though. I *did* experiment with a WordPress plugin or two a few months back, and well, I was never too satisfied with the result. I would love a simple visualization tool that keeps my data in WordPress, doesn’t add a lot of overhead, and has lots of tweakable options. The experience reminded me a lot of that saying about things being cheap, fast, or good, and you can only pick two. I never quite found what I wanted.
I moved on to a variety of other options:
- Zing Chart — highly complex, and the options were not as intuitively laid out as Googel Charts;
- Tableau — this is only available for download, and I haven’t tried it yet;
- PowerView — a Microsoft option, but not available in the version of Excel I was running;
- D3.js — A live data tool, I couldn’t even claim to understand how it worked or what I was supposed to do;
- Fusion charts — looks pretty solid, but linking to it from WordPress wasn’t obvious, and thus a dead end;
- Visual.IS — in addition to having to create an account, it had strong links to paid versions;
- High charts — the type of chart I wanted wasn’t there;
- Chartist — good mentions of it elsewhere, but the website is just on GitHub, and not as friendly to access;
- Piktochart — although it requires an account to be created, the real challenge was that it is also aimed at infographics more so than simple charts, and for some reason, it starts with asking you about infographics vs. presentation vs. printable, i.e. you’re choosing your design and function before you choose anything about what you want to create and put into said presentation, etc.;
- Ubiq — data visualization running with MySQL, and I was hoping to avoid a database element;
- Vizydrop — pulls data from a datafile (CSV JSON or Excel), which I was also hoping to avoid, but may reconsider;
- Plot.ly — no clue what it did as it just kept crashing;
- Datamatic — uses Google Drive, which doesn’t sound problematic, except that GD is blocked by our firewall at work, so visualizations wouldn’t work if I wanted to put them on my screen as a reminder; and,
- Hohli — I really liked this one, but it seems to be geared towards replacing the interface (or lack thereof) for Google Charts, yet with 1 time creation (i.e. couldn’t seem to save or edit / re-use later).
Which put me back in the world of Excel. I did a graph, and it looks fine. I have room for future expansion of data, which could be useful (kind of stacking option for Level 2). Not exactly quite what I was hoping for in terms of quality, but maybe that is just me needing to spend more time with Excel to make it pretty. I would LOVE to be able to recreate the DIFF chart look and feel of Google Charts. But it met my need for the day (to update on my progress on goals in Goals – Weekly roundup (#2017-01)).