Tag Archives: techniques

New book: Visualize This by Nathan Yau

Released just 2 weeks ago I got a copy of “Visualize This”, the new book by FlowingData Blog author Nathan Yau.

Nathan Yau's Blog "FlowingData" and new book "Visualize This"

You can of course get a lot of details on Nathan’s own website here as well as reviews on Amazon. Below are my first impressions after spending a few hours with this book.

If you have followed Nathan’s blog you will recognize many topics in the book. The book gives a good introduction how to create graphs and visualizations to “tell a story” to the audience. It has comprehensive coverage of topics such as where to get data from, how to get them into the right format and validate them, which tools to use based on what type of aggregation or visualization you intend to create. He focuses specifically on R, a programming language for statistical computing and graphics. He also recommends using a box of tools to leverage the strengths of each of them, such as quickly creating a raw chart in R and then dressing it up in Adobe Illustrator. I’d certainly enjoy using the examples as a tutorial for learning the R language.

The book deserves a lot of credit for being laid out well and using a lot of practical examples from everyday life (aging trends, crime rates, economic charts, unemployment data, company store location & growth, urban population, fertility rates, etc.) which most people can relate to. It’s enjoyable to read and makes its points in fluid, yet precise language.

I already took away a few new ideas about aggregate matrix plots (such as Figure 6-9 Scatterplot matrix of crime rates) or using shapes to compare vectors of multiple variables (such as the star charts and Nightingale Charts in chapter 7). For example, I think the Nightingale chart in Figure 7-18 of crime rates by US state is a very useful visualization showing at a glance both the relative amount as well as the break-down into 6 different types of crime per state.

Sample figure with Nightingale Charts displaying crime rates per US state

Don’t expect to learn much in terms of statistics – this book doesn’t purport to go into any sort of statistical depth. It is focused primarily on how to get good visualizations, as compared to incorrect, misleading or even purposely distorting graphs – what Nathan refers to as “Ugly Visualizations” on his Blog.

If I had one wish regarding the contents of this book – or perhaps a sequel some day – I’d say to focus a bit more on interactive graphics. This is obviously hard to do in a printed book, whose pages will always be static. However, there is so much innovation in this area and with the advent of electronic books and media players for interactive content. Together with the advent of mobile computing platforms such as the iPad and book readers such as the Kindle I’m convinced that interactive graphics will enable a whole new way to “tell the story”.

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Posted by on July 27, 2011 in Industrial, Scientific


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Visualizing Player from

Visualizing.Org is a community of creative people working to make sense of complex issues through data and design… and it’s a shared space and free resource to help you achieve this goal. One of the main tools is the new visualization player. From their website:

Great visualizations of all kinds — from high-res infographics to interactive HTML5 apps — deserve stellar representation always. Instead of settling for embedded screenshots or links, as of today people can now easily embed your actual project (under CC license) using the Visualizing Player. This is a first for the field and we hope it helps make including data visualizations in blog posts and articles easier and more satisfying to readers and gets you and your work more attention.

It’s a free media player designed specifically for data visualization and interactive graphics; it currently supports 7 formats (HTML5, Java, Flash, PDF, Video, Image, and URL). Its easy to embed in other sites and there are a lot of example visualizations from the community hosted at

One of them is Gregor Aisch’s interactive graphic on Europe’s Energy production, consumption, import/export and dependencies:

After playing with many of the example visualizations I have two spontaneous reactions:

First, there is a lot of opportunity and possibility to display dynamic and complex information interactively. Not all infographics are interactive, of course, but those that are give you a sense of the power of interacting with the underlying data and models.

Second, there seems to be a lack of generally accepted standards to convey certain types of information. It’s a bit of a wild-west situation with lots of creative approaches to visualizing data – for example look at the many different approaches to the UN Global Pulse data on the above community visualizations page. It reminds me of the graphical user interface days before the standardizing advent of Windows. Not that this is a bad thing; it just feels a bit overwhelming at times.

It’s going to be interesting to see which styles of interactive presentation will become widely adopted.

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Posted by on July 26, 2011 in Industrial, Socioeconomic


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Google Fusion Tables – Free Visualization Tool

Google does search very well. But Google does so much more than that. Think GMail and Blogger, YouTube and Picasa, Google Maps and Google Earth, to name just a few. The Google products page at present lists about 50 tools across categoires Web, Mobile, Media, Geo, Home & Office, Social, Specialized Search, and Innovation. In this last category is Google Fusion Tables, a free tool to share, analyze and visualize data on the web.

You can upload, display and edit your own data, do some filter, aggregate, merge operations, and leverage a series of typical visualization options (Table, Map, Line, Bar, Pie, Scatter…), similar to what you expect from a spreadsheet tool like Excel or Numbers. Through integration with Google Maps APIs it is easy to generate geographical maps and charts such as this demonstration of average cigarette use in countries across the world.

Sample Demonstration of Google Fusion Tables tool showing a world intensity map of cigarette use.

This makes the tool a good candidate to learn or teach about data visualization and play with the available sample data. The bucket of available public tables is rather unstructured – no taxonomy or hierarchical structure – and search for tables is surprisingly limited.
That said, there are plenty of documents, FAQ, APIs, and Forum discussions. And some of the demonstrations are quite useful, for example the website which shows an interactive world-map with more than 10.000 newspapers in their respective geographies and color-coded in the published language:

Note the color-code for different languages.

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Posted by on June 8, 2011 in Industrial, Socioeconomic


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MindMap Tool

A few weeks ago I came across iThoughtsHD, a nifty little tool for creating mind maps on the iPad. I started using it to jot down various ideas and it has grown on me. Here is a quick example of a visualization of content from a Wikipedia page on 7 Basic Tools of Quality:

Mind Map of 7 Basic Tools of Quality (created with iThoughtsHD on iPad, content from Wikipedia)

Note the highly visual nature of those basic tools of quality – something very closely aligned with Visualign’s philosophy.

This mind map was created in about 20 minutes on the iPad. Simple new mind map, 7 children nodes, each with Hyperlinks to and copied images from the respective Wikipedia page (heavy use of clipboard cut-&-paste there).

It is amazing how quickly one can generate useful material with the right tool (iThoughtsHD), platform (iPad) and information (Wikipedia) with literally just a few taps of your finger on a wireless 1 pound tablet on your lap! And the software only costs in the order of $10!

iThoughtsHD then supports many export features, for example via email in a variety of image and file formats, including PNG and PDF. For a full review of all its features, check it out in the Apple App Store or at the creator’s iThought website.

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Posted by on June 4, 2011 in Industrial


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Wolfram|Alpha: The Second Anniversary

Wolfram|Alpha, the computational knowledge engine from Wolfram Research based on Mathematica has been online for two years. With its curated data, ability to compute answers (rather than lookup links to web-pages) and visualize results it is a very powerful tool. It’s app on the iPad brings this power to visualize data and create insight straight to your fingertips:

Note the interplay of curated data, computation and visualization.

Check out this webinar by Stephen Wolfram to learn about the new features and how this new tool is being used in a variety of domains:
Wolfram|Alpha Blog : Wolfram|Alpha: The Second Anniversary.

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Posted by on May 26, 2011 in Scientific


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