Oct 122012

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I sometimes receive quite specific requests about social media, new tech or other slightly more tangental things.  A few weeks ago I was asked for advice on Visualisation tools for a research project and thought that others here might be interested in the tools, sites and resources that came to mind.

The links and recommendations come from a mixture of angles: some I’ve looked at or been aware of through specific work projects; some come recommended by colleagues as new, interesting, or well crafted; and some came from looking for visualisation options for my MSc in eLearning dissertation. Do let me know what you think of any of these tools or the list itself and I’ll be very happy to update the list if you have others to recommend!


This section generally focuses on online tools (with varying policies over data use/retention) that allow you to visualise your data one way or another:

Wordle is about the simplest visualisation tool but can be effective if you want a word/tag cloud: http://www.wordle.net/

Image of the Closing Session at OR2012 with Wordle by Adam Field shown in the background.

Image of the Closing Session at OR2012 with Wordle by Adam Field shown in the background.

Textal is a new and more academically-targetted and mobile-friendly alternative to Wordle, specifically designed for use with text research data sets. I think it should be due out soon… : http://www.textal.org/.

FigShare is a site for sharing academic data, particularly scientific data. It includes some automatic visualisation functionality as well as inspiration via other people’s shared resources, graphs, visualisations: http://figshare.com/

ManyEyes is an IBM tool for visualising data – very useful and once data is uploaded it can be re-visualised: http://www-958.ibm.com/software/data/cognos/manyeyes/

Visual.ly is a consumer web 2.0 tool for visualising data – generally social media related data – and is probably primarily useful as a source of inspiration for other visualisations: http://visual.ly/

Google Apps/Drive includes a series of pretty good visualisation tools that can be accessed from any spreadsheet. Standard Excel type charts can be accessed via:


You can also access more sophisticated visualisations from

Insert > Gadget

There are various examples of these being used well on the web but they really come into their own when you hook up a data collection form to a spreadsheet and then visualise it – it all connects up rather nicely.

Voyant Tools offers a number of approaches to large cohorts of prepared text-based data. It’s worth noting that, as with all of these tools really, you should anonomise and edit the text before submitting it. That’s particularly important for Voyant Tools as you can’t edit the data once it’s up and you can’t delete it easily either. But it does clever stuff in a simple way and for free: http://voyant-tools.org/.

Data-Driven Documents is a site focusing on D3.js, a JavaScript library for working with data – lots of very practical but very technical materials and ideas here: http://d3js.org/

SIMILE Widgets are a great wee set of visualisation tools from a project at MIT that are relatively easy to reuse and widely used on websites to make swishy looking previews etc.: http://simile-widgets.org/

Timeline JS is a flexible way to create timeline visualisations – useful if that type of visual is what you’re after: http://timeline.verite.co/

Tableau is a free data visualisation tool and rather less techie tool to handle than many of those mentioned above. I haven’t had much experience of using it but have heard good things: http://www.tableausoftware.com/public/

SourceMap is a web service that lets you create one type of visualisation – maps visualising “where things come from” whether those be sources, commodities, trade routes, etc. Very useful but only if that’s the visualisation you actually want to create: http://sourcemap.com/ You can find some good examples of these visualisations over on my Trading Consequences’ colleague Jim Clifford’s blog.

British Tallow trade map by Jim Clifford (click through to see his full blog post about these maps).

British Tallow trade map by Jim Clifford. Click through to see his full blog post about these maps.

Gource is a specific version control visualisation codebase – again it’s very niche but nice is that’s your niche: https://code.google.com/p/gource/

Logstalgia is, similarly, a specific visualisation codebase for access log visualisation: https://code.google.com/p/logstalgia/

Dedoose is also worth noting. This is a text analysis tool and isn’t really a visualisation tool but there are visual aspects and it does help you reimagine and reinterpret text data by colour coding, tagging, grouping and viewing trends as you mark up your data: http://www.dedoose.com/


Useful Lists of Visualisation Tools and Resources

These are some articles and listings I’ve found useful in the past – I suspect there are many more to add…

The Next Web did a great guide to visualisation tools in May 2012 (some of which have already been mentioned): http://thenextweb.com/dd/2012/05/10/want-to-make-your-own-data-visualizations-check-out-this-awesome-set-of-tools/

ComputerWorld also shared a very useful post on good free data visualisation tools. The article is here: http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9215504/22_free_tools_for_data_visualization_and_analysis and you can view a chart of all of the tools featured here: http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9214755/Chart_and_image_gallery_30_free_tools_for_data_visualization_and_analysis

GoGeo (http://www.gogeo.ac.uk/) includes a visualisation software area where you can find several useful tools: http://www.gogeo.ac.uk/gogeo-java/resources.htm?&searchcat=Software&search=visualisation. There are also a number of useful collections of geographically related visualisation tools featured in the news section: http://www.gogeo.ac.uk/gogeo-java/resources.htm?&searchcat=News&search=visualisation

Downloadable Software

I must note two fabulous blogs for finding out about these: Tony Hirst’s OUseful blog; Martin Hawksey’s MASHe blog. Both are brilliant resources and contain many many more recommendations for software for visualisation and data analysis.

R – Free software for visualisation: http://www.r-project.org/

Gephi – Powerful – but complex to start out with – open source tool for data visualisation: http://gephi.org/

Expertise – Technical

These are useful website

Visualizing.org is a site dedicated to visualisation and includes a wealth of examples and useful links – very worthwhile browsing this for ideas, practical solutions etc: http://www.visualizing.org/

Visual Complexity is a collection of best practice visualisations which can be searched, browsed, etc: http://www.visualcomplexity.com/vc/

FlowingData is a blog collecting best practice visualisations and usually also indicating technology used: http://flowingdata.com/

Visualisation of Facebook photo virality featured on Flowing Data. Click through to read the full article.

Visualisation of Facebook photo virality featured on Flowing Data. Click through to read the full article.

There are also some individuals whose blogs are always well worth a read:

Steven Gray specialises in working with data and geospatial data visualisation with several very interesting current projects (including Textal). His Big Data Toolkit website http://bigdatatoolkit.org/ includes updates on his research, links to useful resources, discussion of ideas, etc.

Melissa Terras is co-director of the Centre for Digital Humanities at UCL and has worked on a variety of visualisation, research and interaction projects around Digital Humanities, including Textal, which can be found on her website: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/dis/people/melissaterras

Martin Hawksey (already mentioned above) of JISC CETIS blogs at MASHe (http://mashe.hawksey.info/) and often examines data analysis and visualisation including some superb work on Twitter data and visualisation. A search or browse of his blog for visualisations should find some interesting examples using web and downloadable data visualisation tools. As with any of these notable folks he is likely to respond to comments or questions so do comment on his blog!

Visualisation of UK University Twitter Following patterns by Martin Hawksey. Click through to read more about this visualisation and view his and Tony Hirst's IWMW 2012 presentation on Data Visualisation.

Visualisation of UK University Twitter Following patterns by Martin Hawksey. Click through to read more about this visualisation and view his and Tony Hirst’s IWMW 2012 presentation on Data Visualisation.

Tony Hirst (already mentioned above) of the Open University blogs at OU Useful (http://blog.ouseful.info/) and his posts often revolve around visualisation of data, particularly social data. I would recommend having a browse around his site (e.g: http://blog.ouseful.info/?s=visualisation) and leaving comments/questions.

Aaron Quigley of St Andrews University (http://www.cs.st-andrews.ac.uk/~aquigley/) is an expert on Human Computer Interaction and shares great resources and ideas around HCI and visualisation regularly. Aaron is also working on the Trading Consequences project and occasionally blogs about visualisation plans/issues related to that project here: http://tradingconsequences.blogs.edina.ac.uk/

The giCentre at City University London looks at geographic information and visualisation is a major part of that work. Their projects – which have included special commissions for the BBC and others – and related materials can be found here: http://www.soi.city.ac.uk/organisation/is/research/giCentre/

Patrick McSweeney of University of Southampton has worked on a couple of nice visualisation projects and hacks – notably his OR2012 Developer Challenge winning concept of provenanced visualisation within/connect to the repository  – and usually shares the technologies behind them. You can browse recent projects here: http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/pm5/portfolio/projects/


Expertise – Artistic/Creative/Inspirational

This section focuses on those who offer visual inspiration and expertise. I had hoped to include Douglas Coupland who worked on a very creative data visualisation project a few years back but I can’t recall the name of the project nor find the link – do let me know if you can help me out with a link here.

Hint.fm is a site collating new ways to visualise data of various sorts. This is about novel artistic rather than automated approaches: http://hint.fm/

Information is Beautiful, which I’m sure you’ve all seen before, is the home of David McCandles’ work and is really useful for inspiration/artistic visualisation and interpretation of data: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/

Pinterest includes a number of visualisation boards that may be useful as inspiration/a connecting point to further websites and technical details: http://pinterest.com/search/boards/?q=visualisation

Culture Hack Scotland has included some fantastic visualisation and interpretation work in the past – and I’m sure the same is true for other hackdays working with large data sets. For previous projects in 2012 and 2011 have a look here: http://www.welcometosync.com/hack/

And finally…

Ellie Harrison is a visual artist based in Glasgow who specialises in interpreting data, including some lovely visualisation work. Her website is here: http://www.ellieharrison.com/ and her internet projects can be found here: http://www.ellieharrison.com/index.php?pagecolor=2&pageId=menu-internet

Screenshot from Ellie Harrison's most recent web project Trajectories. Click through to access this art project which uses visualisation to explore self comparison.

Screenshot from Ellie Harrison’s most recent web project Trajectories. Click through to access this art project which uses visualisation to explore self comparison.


Hopefully some of the above will be of interest/useful to you as well as the person who originally asked the question. As I’ve already said I’d appreciate any comments, additions, etc. you may have. Visualisations aren’t the core thing I spend my time on but images and visual aspects are so important to making an impact on social media that they are, of course, an area of great interest.

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