Data Visualization in Excel

Instructor: David Gloag
Microsoft Excel is a common tool for crunching and visualizing information. In this lesson, we'll take a look at data visualization, what it is, how it might be performed in Excel, some examples, and advantages.

Making Sense Where There Isn't Any

As a people, we're curious. We have that incessant need to know. If we're given a puzzle, we want to solve it. If we're given a book we like, we want to know how it ends. And if our path is blocked, we want to see what's on the other side. There's no escaping it, it's how we're built. So it will come as no surprise that when given a bunch of information, we want to know what it means. But how do we do that? How do we make sense where there doesn't seem to be any? As you might imagine, there are many approaches, and we use them all to varying degrees. One of the most used though, is data visualization.

What is Data Visualization?

Data visualization is the area of computer science that is concerned about displaying information. In particular, it focuses on presenting information in a way that is easy to consume and understand. You may not realize it, but we come across examples almost every day - charts, graphs, digital images, and movies, are some examples. They have the ability to convey more about a subject, than the original information could on its own. Is, for example, the GPS in your vehicle better than some hand written directions? Is a temperature graph better at explaining the trend than a set of raw numbers? And does a movie tell you more about a subject than the book that formed its basis? Without a doubt.

What is Excel?

Excel is a software application developed by Microsoft whose purpose is to manipulate, and present information. It does this by collecting information and storing it in a tabular form. Each entry is known as a cell, and you can specify relationships or formulas that operate between these cells. Further, you can render the information in these cells to produce powerful displays of this information. Consider the example below:

A Simple Excel Example

On the left, we have a column of values (x) that were manually typed in. Next to them, a column of values that were calculated using the formula y = x * x, where * means multiply. The formula is entered for each cell in that column, and the application figures out the resulting values, which are displayed. These results are then used by the application to create the graph on the right.


Okay, now that we've taken a look at something simple, how can we use this in a practical sense? Well, it really boils down to the information we choose to present. As an example, consider the set of morning blood sugar values for a six-month period. An Excel graph of these values would look something like:

Blood Sugar Example

Notice that you can easily see that there is a downward trend in the values, and that the magnitude overall is getting smaller. This is the power of visualization.

Let's look at a second example. Consider a set of blood pressure values over the same six-month period. A plot of the Systolic and Diastolic values would look as follows:

Blood Pressure Example

Again, we can we see trends and overall values that we couldn't easily see in the raw information.

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