Update 6/6/17: This post has been updated to include additional options, and reflect the newest information available.
What’s the power of data visualizations?
Well, I could tell you that professional football players suffer a lot of injuries, and that those injuries, of course, occur in different percentages based on body parts. I could spend a whole paragraph yakking about body parts, freak accidents, and what a violent game football is.
Or, I could just show you this.
I’m willing to bet this sentence is the first one a lot of you are reading. That’s because your eye went straight for the visualization. But this graph doesn’t just catch your eye, it tells a story in a very subtle way. Juxtaposed with the facts about injuries, the caption about “heading into Super Bowl Week,” along with the player’s forward motion, suggests the ways injuries result from action, but result in inaction. The facts about injuries, mentioned over each body part, suggest the fragility that comes from 250 lb. men smashing into each other for three hours each week.
That’s the power of data visualizations: they create elaborate stories as quickly as recalling a memory. As Gartner analyst Martin Kihn observed (full content available to Gartner clients):
Static data — statistics alone — will persuade few. The visualization must communicate a situation that is having an impact and warrants a thoughtful decision. The visualization has to show some kind of movement. Something needs to happen. In short, the visualization needs to tell a story.
Unless you want to revert to high school mode and tell that story with posterboard and magic markers, data visualization software is the best way to narrate your data. However, data visualization software is expensive, and, unlike in high school, your parents probably won’t help you pay for this. Also? The information you’re illustrating is probably complex, and beyond the range of a twelve-marker box. If only there were free options to visualize your data…
And there are! One of these free and open source data visualization software can help you tell stories that compelling with your data.
Free or Open Source Software
A caveat: Daniel Harris at Software Advice said it best: “‘open source’ is not a synonym for ‘free,’ ‘easy,’ or ‘DIY.’”
The “source” in open source is “source code,” so if you can’t code, i.e. write computer programs, the “open” part is sort of moot.
I’d learn how to code for Shakira. Shouldn’t you?There are some tools, such as Tableau Public, BIRT, and Pentaho that do data visualization (and more), that I didn’t include in this post because I consider them more business intelligence software. You can find those reviews over at Capterra’s Top 8 Free and Open Source Business Intelligence Software post.
Free tools are to data visualization what a Weber grill is to cooking: they’re simple and no frills, but you can also produce decent (sometimes impressive) stuff if you know how to work it. In a lot of cases, the free tools are easy to use: sign up for an account, import data (.csv, Google Sheet, or what files are accepted), pick or make your visualization.
- Sign up for an account
- Import data (CSV, Google Sheet, or what files are accepted)
- Pick or make your visualization
Open source tools are more like free books… written in another language. You don’t pay, but unless you’ve got an employee who speaks the language (whether a programming or spoken language), it won’t be that useful. You’ll recognize a few words, but the grammar and syntax will be indecipherable.
Thus, this list is separated into free tools for non-techies, and open source tools that require coding skills. This list is organized alphabetically, because I’m not one to try and improve on the alphabet.
Free data visualization software
Do you want to turn spreadsheets into mobile-optimized visualizations? Augl founders Megan Matt and Jeff Krantz did, so they created Augl. Augl allows you to convert spreadsheets (CSV, Google Sheets) into graphs that can be easily shared.
The interface is simple—just import a file, and Augl turns the information into cards that you can turn into visualizations.
Candela is part of Kitware’s Resonant data and analytics platform. Jeffrey Baumes, Kitware’s Assistant Director of Scientific Computing, describes what makes Candela unique: “Candela interfaces to several of the more cutting edge data visualization tools and normalizes them with a common API, so you don’t need to learn many different coding styles for each library.”
Have you used Candela? Leave a review!
Chartblocks, like many of these free programs, basically does the same thing that made Windows so successful: replace the code with a visual interface so anyone can use it. In Chartblocks’ case, that visual interface is their chart designer, which guides you through the process.
With its free version, you can make up to 30 charts, export the charts as PNG files (no vector graphics in this version), and get up to 5,000 monthly views. You can’t make your charts private with this, though, so don’t go charting your favorite passwords, or your friends’ social security numbers. (Though that last one might not get you in trouble, so it’s your call.)
Have you used Chartblocks? Leave a review!
If you’re happy with line graphs or stacked bar charts, or if you have info that looks good represented in one of those graphs (revenue growth is one of those, according to Martin Kihn), it’s hard to find an easier visualization tool than Charted. You just paste the link to a file (they support .csv, .tsv, and Google Spreadsheets), hit “go”, and get your graph. It’s a pared-down option, but one that still looks sharp, and has a learning curve simpler than peeling a banana.
Datawrapper offers a range of pay versions, but if you’re reading this, you’re probably more interested in their free option.
The free version’s good for one user, but don’t let that stop you from considering Datawrapper. If you’ve got a small business, or are just looking to supplement a presentation or report, this could be a viable option. It is, however, only good for 10,000 views per chart, so if you’re dealing with more customers, you’ll want to consider upgrading to a paid version.
Datawrapper’s also optimized for mobile devices. Given that “56 percent of consumer traffic to the leading US websites is now from mobile devices,” that’s a big positive for Datawrapper.
Looking for project management help? Gantt charts are a great way to visualize overlapping tasks (read: your life as a project manager). GanttPro Lite is a great, free way to visualize one active project. It’s only good for one user, but you’ll still get automatic scheduling, and a range of Gantt chart templates.
Did you really think there wouldn’t be a Google product on this list? Google has their own data visualization program, Data Studio, that’s free, and of the quality you’d expect from Google. Also, since it’s Google, all their properties (AdWords, YouTube) can connect with Data Studio.
If you’ve already got a Gmail account (or any Google account), setup with Google Data Studio is as easy as a few clicks. If you’ve already got a Google account, it’s also probably the easiest to get started with of all the products on this list. In keeping with Google’s usual for-dummies design, all you have to do to start playing with a visualization is copy one of the templates they provide for you (unless you want to upload your own data).
Leaflet’s list of plug-ins is massive. Looking to create indoor maps? They’ve got you covered. Looking for internet cartography instructions in Norwegian? They’ve got that, too. Even if you want to be old school and learn how to print a map, they’ve got you covered.
If you want your visualization to provide immediate recognition, a heat map is a good way to go.
Heat maps’ use of color makes them intuitive. MyHeatMap has the same easy user experience as a lot of other free software: drag, drop, (et voilà!) map. Be sure that at least two of the rows are for latitude and longitude, and that these values are included for all the data points you want to map. The one downside is a lack of privacy. MyHeatMap’s free version only offers public maps, and those free maps only get 20 data points for each. If you want to expand that number to 200,000 data points per map, spring for the $20/month version.
The above is from Openheatmap, and it’s an image of site owner Pete Warden’s friends and followers. The redder the image, the more people there are. This is the sort of tool that could help you tell a story about, say, customer demographics. Where do your customers live? A heat map instantly communicates profit by zip codes.
Creating a map is simple. You upload a CSV, Excel, or Google Sheets file to Warden’s website, click a button and get a map. It’ll live on his site, but you can link to it. This is all to say that Openheatmap is about as simple as sending an email with an attachment.
Palladio is specifically designed for history teachers, but is also useful for businessmen. Palladio has a simple drag-and-drop interface, and can convert CSV, TAB, or TSV files. The range of visualizations you can make is short (maps, galleries, graphs and lists), but if you’re looking to make something like a map of customer locations, or a gallery of customers with info about them (see pic for example), Palladio could be useful.
Raw’s biggest benefit may be how idiot-proof it is. The interface is easy to pick up. You drag and drop, then click on the kind of visualization you want to make from a chart. Among these free data visualization tools, Raw may win the “best user interface” award for how easy they make it to choose a chart and turn your data into a visual.
Silk’s another free, easy visualization tool. Use it to create a page that lives at a Silk domain. Silk transforms your spreadsheet files (CSV, Google Sheets, or Excel) into a range of visualizations, from bar charts to donut charts to spread graphs.
A few heads-ups: Be sure your spreadsheet has a row with category names at the top, and make sure your data doesn’t have any merged cells or nested tables. Also, all data on Silk is publicly visible, so don’t share anything confidential.
Have you used Silk? Leave a review!
14. Tableau Public
Tableau Public is the business intelligence giant’s free offering, and it doesn’t disappoint. You get up to 10 GB of storage, the program has a drag-and-drop interface, and you get up to 15 million rows per workbook.
The downside is that you can only save to your public profile, so maybe avoid that visualization with potential leads, yearly revenue, or everyone’s blood type (I’m sure some company, somewhere, does that, and I don’t judge).
The good news about the new version is that it’s optimized for tablets and mobile devices. Moreover, it connects to a decent range of data sources, beyond just the standard Excel and CSV files. If you work with R or JSON, Tableau Public can help you out. Tableau Public also connects directly to Google Sheets, so if you’re one of the three million businesses using the Google Suite, you can be visualizing data before the afternoon’s out.
If you’re interested in the sort of visualizations you can create with Tableau Public, check out their online gallery of public visualizations. These are on the more sophisticated side, but they show you how much you can do with a free membership. “How Safe Are Ivy League Schools” is especially eye-opening.
Timelines are to history what directions are on maps: they show how one thing led to another. Timelines can also be a great way to enliven reports, especially when a tool like Timeline allows you to design and embed them for free. If you’ve got a Google Drive account, just make a Google Spreadsheet using a template Timeline provides, embed it on your website, and you’ve got something as slick as this article’s timeline on the spread of ISIS (you’ll have to scroll down a bit), which was made with this tool.
Open Source Data Visualization Software
Come for the animations, stay for the free data visualization. If you’re looking to get started, fast (as in, you’re reading this article because you need to make a chart by close of business today), Chartist recommends you “get things up and running by using the Chartist.js CSS files.”
If you’re making a map and want the colors to pop, ColorBrewer’s a good choice. ColorBrewer has 35 basic color schemes for any map you may be making. The schemes are designed so that the colors don’t look too similar. Though ColorBrewer isn’t mapping software itself, it will make your maps look better.
19. Google Charts
Ah, Google. If life was Dune, Google would be the Spice. If life was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Google would be the oompa-loompas, eerily omnipresent and entirely necessary to the functioning of the world.
Google Charts can be your company’s data oompa-loompas. How impressive is their range of visualizations? They’ve got Sankey diagrams. I’ve been reading about free data visualization tools for several days now, and have yet to have seen that term. That’s like an oompa-loompa who can do your taxes while he sings about “accidental” borderline child murder.
Have you used Plotly? Leave a review!
Weave is a free, open source data visualization program. Its biggest claim to fame is that it’s the only ADA-compliant visualization platform. That means, among other things, it’ll give you a description of what changed as it happens. Setup instructions are relatively simple and straightforward.
More free and open source data visualizations?
If I’ve missed any free and open source data visualizations, please let me know in the comments below!
Looking for Business Intelligence software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Business Intelligence software solutions.