Data presentation tools like charts or graphs offer clear and compelling ways to communicate complex messages. Charts add engaging detail to often text-heavy reports, and infographics on the cover of a brochure or poster can make your message “pop.” Like so much in the digital world, the number of tools available to create graphical displays has grown exponentially over the past decade. In addition, the types of displays available to the average user—including heat maps, infographics, and word clouds—has grown along with the tools.
Like all methods of data presentation, it’s important to think of your audience when choosing which visual representation to use, and to keep the display clean, clear, and simple. This document presents some noteworthy display options to consider, as well as tools to help you create these visuals yourself. This is in no way an exhaustive list, nor are we highlighting these tools as being the best and the brightest. Instead, this document is intended to start you thinking about your own data presentation needs, and the tools that can best help you meet them.
Please note that inclusion in this document does not represent endorsement by SAMHSA’s Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies of these tools.
The number and variety of tools available to display data seem to grow with each passing year. Here are some examples:
Maps are a medium that are familiar to all—making them a valuable display option for any audience. Maps let you demonstrate geographical trends by allowing you to display multiple regions at once—such as in this map of lifetime alcohol abstention rates worldwide, developed with data collected by the World Health Organization (map created on Charts Bin):
Disadvantages: Maps are only meaningful visual displays when geographical location is the primary variable. When comparing groups by age or ethnicity, this method may be less useful.
Selected tools for creating maps include:
- GeoCommons: http://geocommons.com/
Specifically-geared towards developing maps, this web-based tool allows users to upload data sets, create a map from those data sets, and export the map for individual use.
- Charts Bin: http://chartsbin.com/
Similar to Many Eyes (see Word Trees, below), Charts Bin is a free web-based tool that allows users to easily develop online visuals. However, unlike Many Eyes, Chart Bin can only be used to create maps.
Word clouds, also sometimes called tag clouds, rely on image size to present the prevalence of specific words used to describe a given topic or answer a question. For example, this word cloud below displays the most prevalent words that appeared in the 2014 State of the Union Address:
Disadvantages: These are only a good fit for qualitative data.
Selected tools for creating word clouds include:
- Wordle: http://www.wordle.net/
Free web-based tool for creating word clouds that can be easily exported.
- Tagxedo: http://www.tagxedo.com/
Similar to Wordle, this free web-based tool easily creates word clouds in a variety of shapes and colors.
Similar to a word cloud, a word tree is another format for presenting qualitative data. A word tree displays one frequently-used word within a set, then displays how that word is connected to other words in the set. For example, the word tree below displays the word “freedom” in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech.
Disadvantages: Like word clouds, word trees have limited used as they can only display qualitative data.
Selected tools for creating word trees include:
This free web-based tool also allows users to develop word trees that can either be exported as a stagnant image, or embedded as an interactive image into a website.
- Revelation: http://wordtree.revelationglobal.com/
This site allows for easy word tree creation and manipulation, but doesn’t offer easy exporting options.
A bubble chart is a good alternative to a bar chart that would need to include numerous bars. A bubble chart displays circles instead of bars, with each circle, or “bubble,” getting proportionally larger as the data size increases. The bubble chart below displays the top ten boys and girls names from 2012.
Disadvantages: Bubble graphs are only visually useful when attempting to show relationships between multiple pieces of data. In other words, a display showing only two bubbles can fall flat with your audience.
Selected tools for creating bubble charts:
- Microsoft Office Suite: http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/
Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel all allow users to develop bubble charts that can be easily embedded into a report or presentation, or exported for web-based use.
Mentioned earlier, this free web-based tool allows users to import data, develop a bubble chart with these data, and readily export the chart as an image or as embedded code. All charts developed with this tool are publicly available (through the website’s online “gallery”) so this would not be the best choice if working with confidential data.
Choosing a format for distributing your data is an important step in reaching your target audience. Presentation formats can use many types of visualizations (like the Bubble Charts and Word Clouds mentioned above) to share data, as well some standard visualizations like bar charts. Some of the most successful presentations use a hybrid of both eye-catching and standard visualizations to communicate a message. Here are some examples of presentation formats:
Information Graphics or “Infographics”
Infographics can be used to market messages and display data in ways that are both informational and motivational. Used frequently in journalism and social media, infographics present data through a combination of words, numerals, and pictures. Consider this example on prescription drug misuse, developed by the Children’s Safety Network.
Disadvantages: Infographics are focused on fast and immediate impact. As a result, they often display only a small sliver of data, leaving much of your data unrepresented. For this reason, infographics should only be used to target specific audiences.
Selected tools for creating Infographics include:
- Piktochart: http://piktochart.com/
User-friendly web-based tool for creating infographics; free trial available, then monthly subscription required.
- Infogr.am: http://infogr.am/
Web-based tool for creating both infographics and charts (e.g., bar, pie, line, area, scatter); subscription necessary in order to export the visuals.
- Easel.ly: http://easel.ly/
Free web-based tool for creating infographics that can be shared online-only.
- Visual.ly: http://create.visual.ly/
The most costly of the options listed, this platform will develop your infographic for you in about two weeks.
Interactive charts are graphic displays that allows some degree of user involvement—typically to manipulate data, choose which areas of the display to view, or change views (e.g., from a line plot to a bar graph). Interactive charts are frequently used on websites, where they can be embedded into the existing code. The example below is a screenshot of an interactive chart displaying the gross domestic product (GDP) of countries, using data from the World Bank. As you can see, the user of this chart has selected all the European countries to view.
Disadvantages: Interactive charts can fall flat in some presentation formats, like slide presentations or posters when your audience isn’t able to take advantage of its interactivity.
Selected tools for creating interactive charts include:
- Tableau: http://www.tableausoftware.com
The go-to tool for developing interactive charts from large quantities of data. Available in both desktop and web-based software, this fee-based tool best serves users who want to explore the data, rather than simply present it.
- Spotfire: http://spotfire.tibco.com/
Another fee-based software, Spotfire helps users develop sleek interactive charts that can be easily shared on web-based applications like organization websites.
Cool Infographics: http://www.coolinfographics.com/tools/
This website, developed by data visualization specialist Randy Krum, contains numerous links to a variety of web-based presentation tools.
This site, dedicated to helping people improve the way that research is shared, compiled a list of web-based tools to present data visually.
Developed under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies contract (Reference #HHSS277200800004C).