What is a “data visualization tool”? An intro for journalism students and rookie journalists

“Data visualization tool” is a term that goes hand in hand with data journalism; but some students and maybe some rookie journalists are not quite clear what it is and does.

A data visualization tool makes it possible and easy to present and share visualized data, with interactivity, on the web. The visualization itself, though, is nothing new – Microsoft Excel has long had chart visualization as a built-in feature.

Why we need to visualize data

Numbers and statistics are boring if not difficult to read and comprehend. Let’s look at some simple numbers – 1st quarter traffic report for my blog (www.mulinblog.com). Even for a simple data set such as this one, a reader may still need to take a moment or two to get the message – there has been a steady growth in numbers for both pageview and visitor.

January February March
Pageviews 2727 3894 4381
Visitors 1715 2571 2592

In comparison, these numbers can be presented in a visual way, a way that is easier to read and comprehend. In this sense, “data visualization” is really nothing new – the popular Microsoft Excel has had a built-in function to visualize such tabular data.

Excel can visualize data but cannot present/share the visualization on the web

The screenshot below shows the sample data set in an Excel spreadsheet, along with a visualized chart. If you are familiar with Excel, you know there are a variety of chart types we can use: column, line, pie, bar, area, scatter, etc.

Excel charts

However, there is a problem with Excel-generated visualization – it cannot be easily presented and shared to the web. The chart needs to be exported as an image and saved on your computer; you can send the image as an email attachment, or you need to upload the image to a web server and share the image link.

A digital data visualization tool creates and presents interactive visualization on the web

There are many data visualization tools; a tool I use and recommend is Infogr.am, a web-based visualization tool. You log in to your infogr.am account, choose a visualization template, upload data, do some editing, hit “share,” the visualization is then created and online (on infogr.am server, not on your computer).

Here’s a screenshot of the types of chart an infogr.am user can choose for his or her data. Notice the chart types are similar to the ones found in Excel spreadsheet.


As the infogr.am visualization is already on the web (that is, on the infogr.am server), you can share it anyway you want – email the link, share it on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest), or embed it in a web page. Here’s the sample data set visualized with infogr.am and being embedded in this post; you can mouse over the graph to explore the numbers in an interactive way.

Lastly, it should be noted that complex data visualization goes far beyond and above the charts seen in Excel and infogr.am. For instance, heat map, an interactive map that shows the spread of density in different geographic regions, is not something Excel and infogr.am can handle – you need to go for some advanced data visualization tools such as Tableau Public. You may want to read a review of Tableau Public with a sample heat map showing median household incomes by county in New Jersey.

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (www.mulinblog.com/mooc), a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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One Response to What is a “data visualization tool”? An intro for journalism students and rookie journalists

  1. Pingback: Data roundup, April 10 | School of Data - Evidence is Power

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