Tell your story with data, without writing a line of code

I’ve been on the hunt for quick and dirty ways to show off data: visualization tools that are free, pretty, and easy to embed in a story.  Here are my finds so far.

Kick-ass embeddable visualizations

Upload your data set to ManyEyes, and you can turn it into all kinds of neat charts and wacky interactive stuff like word trees. They make it really easy to share. Click on the “share this” link below any visualization to get a snippet of HTML to paste into a story.

Amy Gahran loves word trees too:

You specify a word or phrase, and ManyEyes shows you all the different contexts in which that string appears in a tree-like branching structure. This helps reveal recurring themes in the document, and shows how topics and subtopics are related.

The other hot ManyEyes demo is the government expenses visualization. Use the menu on the left to drill down into spending categories. (Can you find the S&L bailout?)

There are so many kick-ass things you can make with ManyEyes: tree maps, tag clouds, and bubble charts, to name just a few. Here’s a map!

Timelines get sexy

It’s easy to make sweet, interactive timelines with circaVie. Like, really easy. Sign up, click “start a timeline” and add events. Like ManyEyes, they also make it simple to embed a widget, just paste in the provided snippet.
Text message scandal timeline by DFP Graphics

Words are pretty

Wordle makes pretty text visualizations by shuffling words from a file, web page, etc., and sizing the words based on how frequently they occur. Much simpler than a word tree, but sometimes simple is just what you need.

Sixth W on Wordle

Need a map, fast?

Google’s Charts API is suuuper cool.  It can make you bar charts, maps, venn diagrams, even sparklines.  But it’s a tool for web developers, so it’s a bit chewy to use if you’re not familiar with a few things.

Lucky for us, lots of folks have built tools to make it easier. The Google Chart Creator is one of the better ones.  I made this map in under a minute.

Google chart map of the Middle East

What else?

It feels like I give the NYT props every day for their data viz skillz. Their stuff is pretty and awesome, but they’ve got a team of developers, designers and whiz-bang specialists.

What other tools are out there that make it simple to create embeddable news visuals, sans a staff of flash savants?

Flash just got better, but it’s still (usually) very, very bad

From Slashdot:

Adobe systems made an announcement that it has provided technology and information to Google and Yahoo! to help the two search engine rivals index Shockwave Flash (SWF) file formats. …this will provide more relevant search rankings of the millions pieces of flash content.

This is good news

Flash is a terribly popular platform for interactive news, and it’s opacity to search engines was a serious problem. Content in Flash applications was not findable in the same way that regular web content is, effectively hiding large areas of the web from searches.

But it ain’t great news

Ace of Cake\'s has a terrible web site
The navigation at Ace of Cakes is so mysterious, it has its own guided tutorial.  Let’s consider this: You need to study a tutorial. To read about a television program. About cakes.

Eight years ago, usability guru Jakob Nielsen called Flash “99% bad.” Everything he said then is still true now. But there are waaay more Flash apps now.

The problem is that it’s frequently used to present text in a prettier fashion. Add music and some magical menus, and paragraphs get better, right? Wrong. Adobe says that the text will now be searchable, but that fixes only one of Flash’s many problems.

Among many other reasons, Flash sucks because:

  1. You can’t link to content within a Flash app.
  2. Flash apps usually don’t work like the web, so a reader has to learn how to use it.
  3. It usually stinks for people with disabilities.

The above aren’t always true, but the exceptions are few and far between.

When it works

When Flash is at its hottest, it presents information to the user in a way that text never could. The New York Times has been putting out excellent apps that do this, like their Obama-Clinton support visualizer, and their map of the impact of the cyclone that hit Myanmar.

The Spiderman analogy applies: With great power comes great responsibility. Flash lets you jam practically anything into a web site, but the temptation to do so must be resisted.

More great reading, NYT and locative media

Google Earth, New York Times Team Up

You can now browse New York Times news based on geography. Has the New York Times become hyperlocal, even though the content may not have that perspective. if all goes according to plan, the news will be updated every 15 minutes.

The Center for Locative Media

As educators and amateur neo-geographers, we found a rich vein of place-based pedagogy to tap into. Here story was already married to place. As technologists we watched the tools become available to not only tag content to place, but to experience it in that place.

YouTube videos now on Google Maps

Mashable has posted a nice analysis of the newest feature of Google Maps, YouTube videos.

The new feature is slightly different from geotagging photos in Flickr or Picasa, and is also different from the YouTube videos you can find in Google Earth. In those cases, a photo or video is associated with a particular geographic location. The new feature of Google Maps applies to particular listings (businesses, etc.) that appear on the map.

An Example of YouTube video on Google Maps.

Great map integration is one of the reasons Yelp kicks the tar out of Metromix here in Chicago, and is the killer feature of Everyblock. How great would it be if Check, Please! reviews were attached to the restaurant listings?

Or if local news channels could hang their videos off of places and you could see the evening news presented in order of nearness to places important to you: mom’s house, the elementary school, where your son is fighting in Iraq.

Geography is important. This little feature of Google Maps isn’t much, but it’s a glimmer of a new way news and place could interact.