All the World’s a Chart

By: | Nov 11, 2013

All Data Want To be Seen

All data start from humble beginnings. But once discovered and transformed, that same seemingly inauspicious data can become an important driving force. Data can toil in obscurity only for so long. At some point, all data want to be seen.

Of course, generating spreadsheets and reports – numbers occupying rows and columns – is a natural means for transforming data from a raw state to a format that can be seen and understood.

Further transforming those numbers into shapes and colors, though, can make the information even easier to understand and more immediate. That’s what a data visualization, a chart or a graph, e.g., can do. Even the simplest pie chart or bar chart can convey a lot of information that not only appeals to the intellect (in the way a spreadsheet does) but also to the senses (in a way a spreadsheet doesn’t).

This is of course important in the context of a dashboard, for example, where the goal is to depict information that can quickly be grokked and with the right amount drama.

Data visualizations are to spreadsheets what music videos are to sheet music.

Beyond Pie Charts

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Just as there are new emerging technologies for collecting, storing and processing data, e.g. the Hadoop ecosystem, there are new exciting technologies for creating visualizations that are up to the task of getting that data in front of more and more eyeballs. It’s all part of the current data zeitgeist.

And this is happening in the web browser. Over the last few years there have been a number of new JavaScript visualization libraries popping up. There are charting libraries such as Highcharts.js that you can use to create really spectacular charts. And of course Google provides an API for creating online charts.

But the mother of all these new breed of JavaScript visualization libraries is d3.js – which stands for Data Driven Documents. Perhaps you have come across one of the stunning interactive charts on The New York Times website. If so, that was brought to you by d3 (and Mike Bostock – the primary contributor to the d3 source code). Just as jQuery was a game changer for building rich web sites, d3 is a game changer for creating interactive cross platform visualizations. D3, though, is not specifically a charting library. It is a more low level library for drawing shapes and lines and binding them to data. So, fyi, it comes with a steep learning curve. But the overall power it puts at your fingertips is something to get excited about – even after you have gone mad with all the math that comes along with creating a cool visualization.

D3 is open source and and free. And since it is based on internet standards such as JavaScript, SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) and CSS it will work anywhere a web browser will work – even on mobile devices and even in iOS – which is a big advantage over Adobe Flash.

Creating data visualizations is a multidisciplinary endeavor – part graphic design, part psychology and part computer science. With the growing ubiquity of libraries like d3 truly engaging and interactive data visualizations will become more prevalent – which is good for the data that right now is secretly hoping to be rescued from obscurity.

In future posts I’ll take a closer look at the capabilities of d3 and how we use them in the data visualizations we create.