Over the last two days at ACTEM's annual conference I've shared Google Fusion Tables to great response. Many people commented that they had never heard of it, but really liked it and plan to explore it some more on their own. This post is a follow-up to yesterday's conversations. I originally wrote most ofthis post last winter.
Google Fusion Tables is a neat spreadsheet application that makes it easy to create visualizations of data sets. Fusion Tables can also be used to create visualizations of data set comparisons. At its most basic level Fusion Tables can be used to visualize existing data sets with one click. At a deeper level, Fusion Tables can be used to compare your own data sets and create visualizations of those comparisons. The types of visualizations available include tables, maps, charts, and graphs. As a Social Studies teacher, I really like the map visualization options.
Applications for Education For the visual learners in your classroom, Google Fusion Tables could be an excellent tool for showing the various ways that data can be interpreted. Fusion Tables also provides students with a fairly easy way to compare their own data sets.
A few days ago, I came across a drag’n'drop, wire it together visualisation and data analysis tool called Orange.
Here’s a quick run through of some of the basics (at least, a run through of the first few things I tried to do with the tool…)
First off, we need some data. Orange likes TSV (tab separated values) rather than CSV, so I grabbed some TSV from one of the Guardian Datastore spreadheets on Google Docs (use “Save as Text” to get the tab separated value format…)
Orange is a canvas based visual programming environment, in which functional blocks are added the the canvas and certain parameters set within the block. Here’s how we get some data into Orange from a TSV file:
The File icon is giving me a warning (no dependent variable) but I’m not sure why…? I’m sure Orange has managed to detect labels and quantities correctly from other files I’ve tried?
Anyway… we can inspect the data by looking at it in a data table widget – just wire one in:
The table is sortable by column, and the Report button can be used to save a version of the table. Looking t the data table, we see it has identified columns with missing entries. We can clean these from out data set using the Preprocessing widget:
If we now wire the output of the Processing widget into the Scatterplot widget, we can generate a variety of scatterplots:
If you want to save a copy of the chart, it’s easy enough to do so. (I can’t get colour palettes to work on my Mac, so I’m stuck with greyscale displays. Also, the blob sizing doesn’t seem very responsive…)
The Report tool allows us to create a report from various bits of the dataflow, including adding information from several widgets to either separate report pages or the same report page.
Saving a Report saves all the report pages to a navigable set of HTML pages that resemble the Orange Report viewer.
Here are a couple of other things we can do with the data, this time using a data set that isn’t throwing the “dependent variable missing” error, in particular the distribution of comments in a small Friendfeed network…
So for example, here’s how the number of comments made by members of the network is distributed:
Alternatively, we may look at the distribution in a more “statistical” way:
(Remember, we can generate these reports interactively, and then add them to a growing report.)
The survey plot gives us a macroscopic birds eye view over the whole of the data set:
Okay, that’s enough for starters – hopefully you get the idea: wire stuff together and generate visual reports… So why not go and download Orange now?!;-)
There are a whole range of clustering tools, too, which look like they could be interesting…
And I think the platform is extensible, which means there’s a way of adding your own widgets (written in Python, maybe..?)
Last month Hans Rosling, the Swedish global health professor, statician and sword swallower released a desktop version of Gapminder World, his mesmerizing data visualization tool. Named one of Foreign Policy's top 100 global thinkers in 2009, the information design visionary co-founded Gapminder.org with his son and daughter-in-law aiming to make the world's most important trends accessible and digestible to global leaders, policy makers and the general public.
The software they developed, Trendalyzer, (acquired by Google in 2007) translates static numbers into dynamic, interactive bubbles moving through time. The desktop version of Gapminder, which is still in beta, allows you to create and present graphs without an Internet connection.
Emily Cunningham is a research intern at ReadWriteWeb and a design and user experience intern at OpenMRS.org. She is pursuing a Master in Information Management at University of Washington in Seattle, WA. Emily is continually fascinated by the way social technologies are enabling collective action in new forms and on a scale we've never seen before. You can contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter: @emahlee.
What is Awesome
Many of same things that make the Web-based version of Gapminder a great tool applies to the desktop version:
Graphs are highly dynamic and yet easy to understand and create. Presenting data as animated colored dots allows you to show the relationship between sets of information at a level of complexity that's impossible in your typical graphing program.
The interactive nature of the graphs lets users' curiosity lead them to more discoveries about the data. You might, for instance, click on one or two dots representing countries and all the other country dots fade in the background. You can then compare the life expectancy and income per person of say, India and Vietnam.
Accessing the raw data for the graph is as easy as clicking a button.
The example graphs are fun to browse and play with. For instance, "USA or China, who emits the most CO2?" and "Who has the most Internet users?"
Benefits specific to Gapminder Desktop include:
For presentation purposes, having the ability to bookmark graphs for easy reference is invaluable. (And with automatic software you never have to worry if your data is out of date.)
Obviously not needing a Internet connection is a big bonus. Especially if you're giving a lecture in a resource-constrained part of the world with unreliable Internet connectivity.
Definitely don't miss Rosling's screencast (below) explaining how to use the application. Bonus: He gives five good tips on how to give a successful presentation with the software. Double bonus: Rosling is an endearing, quirky guy and is entertaining to listen to even in a "how to" screencast. (See his answer to "What's it like knowing so many on reedit (sic) have intense nerd crushes on you?" in this screencast for more Rosling goodness.)
What Needs Work
In a word: social. I would love to see the most shared and viewed graphs as well as new graphs and the people who made them. Peering in on conversations to see how people are using the graphs in their own work would be interesting and might help spark more ideas on how to use the content. I'm thinking of the way Wordnik displays the most recent tweets of a given looked-up word to give users more context to its meaning. I can also imagine people discovering one another as well as important discussions and collaborations coming out of a more social Gapminder.
Right now, Gapminder World has a "share" button, but all it does is give users a shortened bit.ly URL instructing them to "copy the short link below and paste it in a blog or send it by e-mail." (Though not necessarily in real-time, you can imagine the desktop version of the app getting the same information as the website version.)
Another benefit to having more social information displayed: It gives users more hooks to play with the tool. Yes, the data is very interesting. But with over 600 indicators, I found myself not going as deep into the data as I probably could have; it just got overwhelming at some point. Seeing the titles of other people's graphs probably would have kept me tinkering around a bit longer. I played around with the pre-made "example" graphs more than making my own graphs, in fact.
The Larger Picture
You won't comprehend the full power of Gapminder unless you watch at least one of Rosling's TED talks. His passion and style makes him a joy to watch. As TED notes, "With the drama and urgency of a sportscaster, statistics guru Hans Rosling debunks myths about the so-called 'developing world.'"
Rosling is a master at understanding global statistics and communicating the underlining trends they reveal. But what I find most admirable about Rosling is his commitment to making important information and insights understandable by everyone. Freeing public data from database hell so that it can be used by experts and laypersons alike is one of his goals. It was also the impetus behind creating Gapminder.
In a Gapcast titled "Free Statistics for Democracy," Rosling explains in his typical humorous style that his target audience consists of "children below 12 and heads of state. Because they both, they don't want people to show them boring graphs, you know and pretend. They want to see for themselves."
While children and global leaders are on his target list, his real audience is you and me: "The main decision makers we have aren't government, it's not policy makers; it's the public... Decision making, policy setting is done by the public in a democracy. So we have to change. Statistics means bookkeeping of the state. Serving the decision makers within the state."
18 Formats for Handmade Thinking in the Classroom is a presentation put together by Laurence Musgrove. In the presentation Musgrove takes the ideas from Dan Roam's Back of the Napkin books and applies them to the classroom. In his presentation Musgrove outlines eighteen ways that visual thinking and handmade sketches can be used in your teaching practice. Musgrove includes some examples of handmade sketches created by students. There are 100 slides in the slidedeck, but the deck didn't get interesting to me until slide seventeen when Musgrove jumps into the 18 formats for handmade thinking. View the slides below.
Applications for Education Statistics in and of themselves can be kind of boring to students. A good infographic can make statistics appear more interesting. You could use the samples from Infographic World as conversation starters in class. You could also use the samples as models for your students when you have them create infographics of their own.