Data Visualization

What is It?

A data visualization is a pictorial representation of data that may take the form of an animation, a cloud, a map, a chart, or a simple picture. Data visualizations are created by mashing up a data source (or sources) with specially designed software for representing or displaying the data.

Over the past few years, there has been a proliferation of tools for creating sophisticated data representations. You may be familiar with some of these found in applications such as Google Maps, Google Earth, Friend maps in Facebook, photo maps in Flickr, and applications such as Stweet, which allows user to see where tweets are appearing on a street using Google Street view.

In order to create a visualization, you need to start by getting access to reliable sources of data. Fortunately, over the past few years, many new sources of data have been made available to the public. To learn more about these see the Data Sources section below. Once you have a good data source, you can begin evaluating data visualization tools to see which best suits your needs.

How Can I Use It in Teaching?

Wrapping one’s brains around data can be challenging, especially when you’re dealing with the huge volumes of information available online today. Similarly, trying to find related content can also be difficult, depending on what data one is looking for. Data visualizations can make it easier to see relationships among data and concepts and help students learn in a more interesting and often more useful manner.

Examples of Use at Tufts

Resources for Learning More

Data Visualization Tools


Gapminder is a tool developed by researchers in Sweden to help visualize human development. The Gapminder site, which is linked above, provides an environment for displaying or visualizing data on human development in a variety of different ways and has been mashed up with reliable sources of data from the United Nations, the OECD and other national and international organizations.

Gapminder Quick Start (graphic below)

Google Motion Charts

Motion Chart is a free gadget in Google Spreadsheet (an online spreadsheet similar to excel). In motion chart you can convert your data-series into a Gapminder-like graph and put it on your web-page or blog. All you need is a free Google-account.

Building on the software behind Gapminder, Google has developed a way for you to turn a spreadsheet into a data visualization referred to as a motion chart. To use this tool, you must first create a data set in a Google Spreadsheet. Once you have a data set saved in a Google spreadsheet, you must save your spreadsheet as a motion chart. You can then add your motion chart to a website, blog, paper etc. For complete instructions on doing this, see the tutorial here.

Once you’ve created your data visualization, it’s possible to embed it directly into a website, share and reuse it in different contexts, work on it collaboratively with other students or researchers, or add it to a paper. The difference between using GapMinder and a Google Motion chart is that the Gapminder website provides data for you whereas Google Motion charts require you to find data and add it to a Google Spreadsheet.

Many Eyes

Many Eyes is an IBM sponsored web environment that provides a comprehensive suite of visualization techniques and allows users to upload data and produce graphic representations for others to view and comment upon. Using Many Eyes, it’s possible to create your own visualization or to edit other people’s data to create new versions of visualizations from data sources you’ve mashed with someone else’s data. The goal behind this environment is to “harness the collective intelligence of the net for insight and analysis.”

Many Eyes Quick Start Tour

Google Earth

Google Earth is free software that enables you to mash up data with rich geographical content and create a geographical data visualization.
You must download the latest version of Google Earth to your laptop. This version has new features which allow you to view:

* Historical imagery from around the globe
* Ocean floor and surface data from marine experts
* Simplified touring with audio and voice recording

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.