Data Strategy

June 21, 2007

Tools for visualizing and analyzing data collaboratively

Filed under: Datamining, Visualization — chucklam @ 12:40 am

Most data analysis, especially in the business world, are done through graphs: People load up data into Excel and graph them, looking for interesting and unusual patterns. Swivel is a web site that focuses on doing just that kind of data analysis online. Unlike Excel, it leverages some of the power of the web. For example, people can leave comments on each graph. People can digg the ones they like. Data with a geographic component can be plotted onto online maps. Etc.

However, what got me really excited today about this topic was seeing something else, a screencast of sense.us (screencast here and homepage here). It’s always hard to describe visualization tools, so I suggest you to just check out the screencast to see what it is.

If you have ever done collaborative data analysis, you’ll know the following drill. You have some data, see some patterns in it after a little exploration, and you create some summary graphs that highlight those patterns. You show those graphs around to either convince your colleagues of your hypothesis or to solicit some ideas. As always, other people will offer alternate hypotheses, give you contextual information that you didn’t know before (“A bug was on that sensor…”), raise new questions, and some may even want to look at the data themselves. So you go back to the data, re-do the graphs/analysis based on the feedback, and iterate the process. This can be time consuming. It’s kind of like collaborating by emailing a document around.

What’s needed is a data graphing tool that’s designed from the ground up to support the collaborative analysis of data, and this is what sense.us is. It’s a web-based tool that lets you generate new graphs quickly and interactively. More importantly, it supports collaboration by using well-known web tools such as bookmarking, commenting, and linking. To describe it in another way, sense.us is useful for data analysis like version control is useful for programming.

The developer of sense.us is Jeffrey Heer, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley. He’ll be talking about the system in a Yahoo Brain Jam session in Berkeley on June 29. More info here. I don’t know if I’ll have time to drive up to Berkeley for the talk yet, but we’ll see…

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