Wednesday 29 December 2010

Data tools - reviews

Data visualisation & mapping tools are something I've been curious about for a long time but never quite had a few hours to devote to tracking them all down and playing with them. Well, someone else has tracked them all down, so I thought I'd spend a fun few hours (my definition of fun is not your definition of fun, I appreciate that), playing with them, reviewing them and putting the results here, if only so in 3 months time when I need a tool, I can come back to this and hopefully know which one to use without getting horribly confused.


Purports to offer simplicity, uniquity and interactivity. I've got some arguments with this. You can't make claims like that and not expect me to be harsh. The welcome splash screen is an abomination, but we're not judging on design wait, a website splash screen for a website helping to me design lovely charts and graphs shouldn't make my eyes bleed. -1 point. Also on the front screen is the warning of things to come - a) it's in Beta and b) improved import from Excel. So another -1 point because already I've got a sneaking suspicion the word simplicity is nothing but marketing speak. Click on Create your own and another window spawns. Click your type of graphic - pie, bar, line etc.

I'm not going to do a walkthrough for every tool, but things I noticed in producing the graphic below: Import means pointing something at a spreadsheet on my desktop and hitting Import, not copying & pasting, it's easy to forget to click the Import button, you have to hand type the Title which in this day & age seems terribly retro, on importing the data, the axis retain the descriptors from the example - you're not asked to change them. To change them, you click on Special. I don't class being able to name my axis from your default assignation Special. I call it Mandatory. And confusing as I distinctly remember clicking 'first row are headers' in the Import tab. Each key tap dynamically updates so people who hate Googles live searching are going to detest this, as are those of us on netbooks.

The biggest thing this falls down on, however, is that I can't specify or change any colours on the actual chart. My whole chart is blue. I might not like blue. I might want to have each bar in different colours, or group bars visually for some reason. I can't.

So there you have it - it took very little time to do but there's some serious tweaking to be done on this site before I'll go back and use it in anger. Once it's launched, however, I will be going back and reviewing again.


Load it up. Go on. What do you see? A map of something which looks vaguely like the US down to County level and a world of pain. Click on the How to use page and all becomes clear - it's colour diagnostics for your infographics to ensure the colour differentiation is great enough between colours sat next to each other that the infographic is of value and not a mass of 'oh my eyes'. Genius in other words. It's got print friendly and colour blind friendly options, you can overlay roads and you can pull all the suggested colour schemes out in RGB, CMYK or Hex. You can also Export your colours to Excel.

This is a simple tool, and quite a specific one, but it's done well with a good selection of options but without overcomplicating things. Will definitly be using it.

Dundas Data Visualisation

Paid for so not reviewed as I'm a casual user at this stage. Someone else I'm sure will review it - flag below if you come across one. Included here only for completeness.


Confusion reigned because the link from the Digital Research Tools Wiki goes to a landing page and not the tool itself. Once you've followed the yellow brick road, you get to Exhibit. Unfortunately, you get to a page showing you what Exhibit can do but absolutely no clue on how to begin creating such lovely looking things. And since I suspect that working it out is going to take days and not hours, it's not something for the casual user so there the review ends.


I've deliberately linked to the tutorial page, within which it explains a working flash development environment. Not suitable for a casual user again, going to take more than a few hours to work it out. Again.


Incredibly interesting looking web based GIS tool by the looks of it - however I tried to search for layers to add to my map and found difficulties finding anything UK based as there doesn't seem to bea filter, so tried exiting the add layer dialogue which promptly caused an adobe shockwave plugin crash. Which is where my patience ended, I'm afraid, as I suspect a lot of others would.

This is the point where I started to lose the will to live so I scanned down the list and picked a tool at random - the Internet Community Text Analyser. It beautifully sums up a number of issues which I will summarise at the bottom of this post.

The ICTA is a good summary of my morning so far. I wanted to analyse my Twitter stream on Loulouk, including @replies. The whole lot. ICTA says it can deal with RSS feeds. So I tried initially using Twitter's raw offering of rss and validated it in Google Reader. Because of the introduction of oath, it stopped displaying anything after November 2009. Okay, fine. So I do a bit of investigating and find Free My Feed. I enter the RSS from Twitter, my username, Loulouk, and my password. For the first 4 attempts it said no Feed found. In writing this, it's generated a freed feed which will not require oath. So I've gone to ICTA and entered that web address that Free my Feed gave me, entered a name for it and hit Import and Save. It parses - no error. Wonderful. Except it says 20 records. Yep, it's trying to tell me I've tweeted 20 times from my account. I've also got a webpage full of white space, with a few lines of text at the top but we'll ignore that for the moment.  So on clicking Next, what do I find after a page where I'm supposed to remove something but I'm not quite sure what?

Nothing. Zeroes everywhere. No explanation that I should wait or click on the Analyze button then wait (because it appears as I should as after a few seconds things start spinning and loading, though I'm not entirely sure what). On loading, it tells me # of names found is 1. Which is impossible because on the previous screen, inside those 20 messages it clearly showed more than one name. So what does it mean when it says name? Click on the ? and you get:

This is how many unique personal names that ICTA found in this dataset.

By clicking on this number, you can review all names found by ICTA, add or delete names as necessary.
 And this, this is why I am coming to detest arbitrary lists of useful tools. Half of them don't work. Realy desperately do not work. Of the half which do and are out of Beta mode, 90% of them require you to be a 'developer' or have a damn good understanding of GIS - Open Heat Maps was another tool I had a quick play with - I had the csv on my desktop of the location of all the Boris Bike stations lying around so I tried to use that. This is what I got:

Yes, apparently there is a Boris Bike station in the middle of the Atlantic. Handy. Do you know why it's there? Because the data which TLA give out on the docking station locations includes co-ordinates and the co-ordinates are in Eastings and Northings which means they are a type of co-ordinate projection called Universal Transverse Mercator. There are, quite literally, hundreds of different projection systems. The ones you will be familiar with are porobably the one which gives co-ordinates in degrees, minutes and seconds, which is referred to as Latitude and Longitude and finally the Ordnance Survey term of reference - the British National Grid which uses a sequence of letters and numbers to enable you to pinpoint your exact position.

I don't know what projection, what type of system, Open Heat Maps is using. There is no option in the process offered to change the projection. And this is why there are dots in places on the map which frankly would incur such a monumental penalty in being over the return time limit that it doesn't bear thinking about.

So what I have learned today?

A) A projection standard is going to become an issue far quicker than I had thought as more and more people without geography degrees (me) or GIS degrees (me) try and play around with data to make it mean something, say something, represent something.
B) Beta means beta means beta. Don't expect it to work. It's a nice surprise then when it actually does.
C) People compose lists on a regular basis which point to tools which they clearly have not tested in any way shape or form. Once you know this and accept this, frustration disappears.
D) Data standards are also going to be a massive issue outside of co-ordinate data. But the issues shown above in co-ordinate data are being replicated across swathes of the UK and US as people rush to publish their data without first questioning the validity of it, the usefulness of it, the integrity of it or how someone will take it and compare it to anything else without metadata standards which are adhered to.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to try and retrieve some of my enthusiasm for examining, visualising, interrogating and spatially mapping data. It's waned somewhat.


  1. Did you try Google Refine? It seems like a potentially very useful thing.

  2. I lost the will to live to be honest and abandoned any pretensions of ever being able to visuale anything outside of my own brian. I will attempt to get my head around it tomorrow, thank you for the heads up.

  3. I'm sorry you had problems with GeoCommons. You can search by location from the "Add Layer to Map" screen. Zoom the map to the area you are interested in and click "Add Data," if you then click "Within Map" it will show data within the map display.

    As for Flash crashing, that shouldn't happen but unfortunately does sometimes. We are releasing some updates in the next couple weeks which should relieve some of the issues you are seeing.

  4. Ah. It was the Add Layer to Map screen which crashed, the first time I loaded it. By that point, considering all preceding it, I'd simply lost the will. I'll go back and have another play and do another review.