Information Visualization: Tools & Techniques

Instructor: David Gloag
In this lesson, we'll take a look at information visualization, what it is, some tools you might use to make it happen, and some techniques that lend themselves to it.

Information Leads to Understanding

Our understanding of the world is driven by our access to information. So, we collect it on our finances, we collect it on our health, we even collect it on sporting events of interest to us. In fact, we collect it on pretty much anything we can think of. It's almost to the point where we are overwhelmed by the volume. But what good is all this information? What if we can't draw some meaningful conclusions from it? Some would say it's not worth much, and they'd be right! We need some means to glean understanding from this glut of information. One way we might do that is through information visualization.

What is Information Visualization?

Information visualization is the process of translating collected information into visual terms. Its purpose is to convert a large volume of raw data into something that can be quickly and easily understood. Think back to the temperature map on the morning's newscast. Did the visuals give you a better idea of the how the temperatures in the area were tracking than the raw values would have? Could you arrive at those conclusions quickly? This is an example of information visualization at work. Raw weather information is converted to imagery which is converted to understanding.

Tools Used for Information Visualization

There are a vast array of Information Visualization tools available today. There are way too many to list here. Some of the more notable ones include:

  • WolframAlpha - This is a competitor to Google in some respects. This site calls itself a 'computational knowledge engine' and has an affinity for displaying charts without prior setup.
  • Tableau - This is a user driven chart, graph, and mapping tool that provides real-time update and display capabilities.
  • Chart.js - This is an open-source programmatic charting tool (library) that is popular among hobbyists and those with small projects.
  • D3.js - This is a JavaScript library that provides some amazing diagrammatic capabilities, and is the clear choice for more serious visualization projects.
  • Google Charts - With the prominence of Google, it stands to reason that their charting package would be a serious contender in the web visualization space.
  • Microsoft Excel - Many people don't realize it, but in addition to number crunching, Excel is also good at visualization and provides a number of charting and plotting capabilities.

Techniques Used in Information Visualization

As with tools, there are a variety of techniques used in information visualization. However, they generally fall into one of the following categories:

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