A picture is worth a thousand words, but creating cool infographics can be time-consuming. So we've found 20 amazing tools to make it easier.
It’s often said that data is the new world currency, and the web is the exchange bureau through which it’s traded. As consumers, we’re positively swimming in data; it's everywhere from food labels to World Health Organisation reports. As a result, for the designer it’s becoming increasingly difficult to present data in a way that stands out from the mass of competing data streams.
One of the best ways to get your message across is to use a visualisation to quickly draw attention to the key messages, and by presenting data visually it’s also possible to uncover surprising patterns and observations that wouldn’t be apparent from looking at stats alone. As author, data journalist and information designer David McCandless said in his TED talk: "By visualising information, we turn it into a landscape that you can explore with your eyes, a sort of information map. And when you’re lost in information, an information map is kind of useful."
There are many different ways of telling a story, but everything starts with an idea. So to help you get started we’ve rounded up 20 of the most awesome data visualisation tools available on the web.
The iCharts service provides a hosted solution for creating and presenting compelling charts for inclusion on your website. There are many different chart types available, and each is fully customisable to suit the subject matter and colour scheme of your site. Charts can have interactive elements, and can pull data from Google Docs, Excel spreadsheets and other sources. The free account lets you create basic charts, while you can pay to upgrade for additional features and branding-free options.
Flot is a specialised plotting library for jQuery, but it has many handy features and crucially works across all common browsers including Internet Explorer 6. Data can be animated and, because it’s a jQuery plugin, you can fully control all the aspects of animation, presentation and user interaction. This does mean that you need to be familiar with (and comfortable with) jQuery, but if that’s the case, this makes a great option for including interactive charts on your website.
04. Modest Maps
Modest Maps is a lightweight, simple mapping tool for web designers that makes it easy to integrate and develop interactive maps within your site, using them as a data visualisation tool.
The API is easy to get to grips with, and offers a useful number of hooks for adding your own interaction code, making it a good choice for designers looking to fully customise their user's experience to match their website or web app. The basic library can also be extended with additional plugins, adding to its core functionality and offering some very useful data integration options.
Another mapping tool, Leaflet makes it easy to use OpenStreetMap data and integrate fully interactive data visualisation in an HTML5/CSS3 wrapper. The core library itself is very small, but there are a wide range of plugins available that extend the functionality with specialist functionality such as animated markers, masks and heatmaps. Perfect for any project where you need to show data overlaid on a geographical projection (including unusual projections!).
Timeline is a fantastic widget which renders a beautiful interactive timeline that responds to the user’s mouse, making it easy to create advanced timelines that convey a lot of information in a compressed space. Each element can be clicked to reveal more in-depth information, making this a great way to give a big-picture view while still providing full detail.
Developed by MIT, and fully open-source, Exhibit makes it easy to create interactive maps, and other data-based visualisations that are orientated towards teaching or static/historical based data sets, such as flags pinned to countries, or birth-places of famous people.
Billed as a "computational knowledge engine", the Google rival WolframAlpha is really good at intelligently displaying charts in response to data queries without the need for any configuration. If you’re using publically available data, this offers a simple widget builder to make it really simple to get visualisations on your site.
Visual.ly is a combined gallery and infographic generation tool. It offers a simple toolset for building stunning data representations, as well as a platform to share your creations. This goes beyond pure data visualisation, but if you want to create something that stands on its own, it's a fantastic resource and an info-junkie's dream come true!
10. Visualize Free
Visualize Free is a hosted tool that allows you to use publicly available datasets, or upload your own, and build interactive visualisations to illustrate the data. The visualisations go well beyond simple charts, and the service is completely free plus while development work requires Flash, output can be done through HTML5.
Orientated towards making positive change to the world, Better World Flux has some lovely visualisations of some pretty depressing data. It would be very useful, for example, if you were writing an article about world poverty, child undernourishment or access to clean water. This tool doesn’t allow you to upload your own data, but does offer a rich interactive output.
12. jQuery Visualize
Written by the team behind jQuery’s ThemeRoller and jQuery UI websites, jQuery Visualize Plugin is an open source charting plugin for jQuery that uses HTML Canvas to draw a number of different chart types. One of the key features of this plugin is its focus on achieving ARIA support, making it friendly to screen-readers. It's free to download from this page on GitHub.
Another jQuery plugin, jqPlot is a nice solution for line and point charts. It comes with a few nice additional features such as the ability to generate trend lines automatically, and interactive points that can be adjusted by the website visitor, updating the dataset accordingly.
Dipity allows you to create rich interactive timelines and embed them on your website. It offers a free version and a premium product, with the usual restrictions and limitations present. The timelines it outputs are beautiful and fully customisable, and are very easy to embed directly into your page.
15. Many Eyes
Developed by IBM, Many Eyes allows you to quickly build visualisations from publically available or uploaded data sets, and features a wide range of analysis types including the ability to scan text for keyword density and saturation. This is another great example of a big company supporting research and sharing the results openly.
If you need to generate charts and graphs server-side, jpGraph offers a PHP-based solution with a wide range of chart types. It’s free for non-commercial use, and features extensive documentation. By rendering on the server, this is guaranteed to provide a consistent visual output, albeit at the expense of interactivity and accessibility.
20. Google Charts
The seminal charting solution for much of the web, Google Charts is highly flexible and has an excellent set of developer tools behind it. It's an especially useful tool for specialist visualisations such as geocharts and gauges, and it also includes built-in animation and user interaction controls.
Words: Sam Hampton-Smith
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Have you used these other tools for data visualisation? We'd love to hear about your experiences! Let us know in the comments below...