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June 26, 2014 / carlispina

CALI Conference 2014: Our Ideas Made Visible

During last week’s CALI Conference, I had the opportunity to hear Michael Robuk discuss data visualization in a presentation entitled Our Ideas Made Visible: Tools for Visualizing Data. This session offered an introduction to the topic of data visualization and an overview of tools that exist to help users visualize data even if they do not have experience in the field. Robuk started by discussing Edward Tufte‘s philosophy of design before showing the first several minutes of David McCandless’ Ted Talk, entitled The Beauty of Data Visualization (embedded below).

This talk helped to show the power of effective data visualization and served as a good starting point for Robuk’s discussion of some of his favorite data visualization tools, which are listed below:

  • Google NGram: Visualizing the changes in the text of published books over time can offer interesting insights into the way that society or a specific field of study has changed during the specified period and this is exactly what the Google NGram Viewer allows users to do. It uses the text that was scanned as part of the Google Books projects, so it includes a wide range of publications over a long period of time. You can read more about my thoughts on it in my post from 2012.
  • Wordle: This tool creates word clouds from any text you input, meaning that you can input whole text files or content you have scraped from a website to learn more about relative word frequency in a highly visual way. If you are interested in trying out word clouds, check out my post on Wordle or one of my posts on other word cloud generators.
  • Google Maps: While many are familiar with using Google Maps to get directions, Robuk focused on ways that Google Maps can be used to highlight the geographic relationship between data points or locations.
  • Tableau Public: This free software, which is available for both Macs and PCs, makes it easy to visualize your data in a professional way. If you are just getting started, the gallery will give you some ideas of how other users have visualized data with the tool.
  • Many Eyes: This software from IBM gives users the ability to create dynamic data visualizations that take a variety of formats. The Quick Start guide provides a nice overview of how it works.
  • Infographics remain popular and is one of many tools aimed at making it simple to create your own infographic no matter what type of information you have. If you are interested in checking out other alternatives, take a look at this list of my previous posts on infographic tools.
  • WolframAlpha: While not a true data visualization tool, Robuk mentioned this tool, which refers to itself as a “computational knowledge engine,” as another example of how data can be found and used.
  • Futureful app: The final tool that Robuk mentioned was Futureful’s Random app. This app is focused on creating random connections and surprising discoveries. To further this goal, the app also adapts to your own preferences and activities over time.

Robuk’s presentation offered a great list of tools that was sure to suggest something new and different to almost everyone. I will be interested to see how libraries ultimately make use of these tools to share information in more engaging and interesting ways.


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