CoolData blog

18 October 2012

It’s your turn to DRIVE!

It’s been a full year since I attended the first DRIVE Conference in Seattle, and I’m pleased to let you know (if you don’t already) that a second one is on the way. DRIVE 2013 takes place February 20-21 at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center in Seattle, Washington, and is hosted by the University of Washington. Registration is now open!

I’ll be making the trip to DRIVE 2013, and I think you should, too. I’m there to speak, but I expect to get a whole lot more out of it than I give.

DRIVE stands for those most awesome and beautiful words “Data, Reporting, Information and Visualization Exchange.” It’s a gathering-place for the growing community of non-profit IT/data people seeking to bring new ideas and efficient processes and systems to their organizations. Whether you’re just joining the non-profit ranks or you’ve been in the sector a while, this is the place to explore the latest ideas in analytics, modeling, data, reporting, information and visualization with people who are of like mind but come from all sorts of different backgrounds.

It’s this diversity that really injects value into the “exchange” part of DRIVE: You’ll meet some fascinating people who will help you see data-driven performance through a whole new lens.

Especially this year … wow. There are fundraisers and report-writers and data miners – all great. But a developmental molecular biologist? And a major-league baseball scout? Yes!

On top of that, there’s an opportunity to sign up for some on-the-spot mentoring (either as a mentor or mentee) which will allow you to have a focused conversation on a topic of interest that goes beyond the merely social aspect of a conference. Check that out on the conference website.

A few speaker highlights:

DR. JOHN J. MEDINA, a developmental molecular biologist, has a lifelong fascination with how the mind reacts to and organizes information. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School” — a provocative book that takes on the way our schools and work environments are designed.

ASHUTOSH NANDESHWAR, Associate Director of Analytics at the University of Michigan, will talk about how we can tackle the three biggest problems in fundraising using data science.

KARL R. HABERL, of Principal BI will be presenting on the merits of powerful visualization. His presentation will introduce you to three innovative ‘compound charting techniques’ that provide new levels of insights to analysts and their audiences.

ANDREW PERCIVAL, an advanced scout with Major League Baseball’s Seattle Mariners. For his presentation, Andrew will be speaking about the use of data in the game of baseball. Come hear how an MLB scout turns massive data sets into information that is used by coaches and front-office personnel.

Oh yeah – and me, and a whole lot more. For more information on the other speakers and topics lined up so far, visit the DRIVE 2013 website.


12 April 2010

New way to look at words

Filed under: Coolness, Data visualization, Free stuff, Text — Tags: , , , , , — kevinmacdonell @ 8:13 am

Word clouds aren’t new, but there’s a new online app for creating them that is worth checking out. Tagxedo allows you to create your clouds using some versatile tools for shaping the appearance of the cloud, which you can then easily save as a .jpg or .png.

This comes to me via a post on the LoveStats blog, where Annie Pettit has posted a couple of her own creations – one based on the text of her resume, and one on all the words in her blog.

I wrote about word clouds back in December (Quick and easy visuals of large text files), and the well-known and very cool tool known as Wordle, the creation of Jonathan Feinberg. Tagxedo does the same thing but works a little differently. Powered by Microsoft’s SilverLight browser plug-in, Tagxedo offers a nifty interface for importing your text (or URL), finely controlling your word choice, and playing with the font, colour, theme and layout of your cloud, including being able to choose a shape. The choice of shapes is rather limited – hearts, stars, rectangles and ovals, mostly. Here’s a star-shaped word cloud based on the 150 most common words on this blog:

(Click for full size image.)

My interest in word clouds is related to visualization of data – in this context, conveying the gist of a mass of text by giving prominence to the most common significant words. For example, last year I used Wordles to visualize tens of thousands of words entered as free-text comments in a survey of alumni. It’s no substitute for real analysis, but it does make a cool presentation slide!

NOTE: Check in tomorrow for Jason Boley’s amazing work with NodeXL for visualizing prospect connections in your data.

20 January 2010

Another take on Google’s Motion Charts

Filed under: Coolness, Data visualization, Free stuff — Tags: , , , , — kevinmacdonell @ 9:09 am

Late last year I posted a tutorial on creating Google motion charts with your data. These very cool charts work with your time-series data, stored in Google Docs, to create an animation with the power to convey a lot of information in an easily understandable form.

But what about private data? You may not want to rely on Google’s ability to password-protect your data, or the privacy provisions you work with may prohibit posting data to an outside server.

Here’s another way to take advantage of motion charts. I was put onto this by Trevor Skillen, President and CEO of Metasoft, in Vancouver BC, whose company is working on incorporating motion charts into their well-known FoundationSearch product.

This version uses stored code to manipulate your data locally, rather than pulling it from Google Docs.

The advantages are clear:

  • Your data is stored locally and the code is executed locally, in the browser – nothing is sent to Google.
  • You gain precise control over the appearance – you can hide options that the user doesn’t need to see.
  • The example code provided by Google is fairly easy to modify without requiring programming or scripting skills.

Trevor directed me to Google’s ‘playground’ where one can get a quick feel for the technology without much tech effort.

There is a downside … there is a good deal of manual coding you’ll have to do if you want to put a chart together using your own data. This limits you to fairly simple charts – unless you’re capable of writing the additional code that will allow the chart to get data from a file or table.

10 December 2009

Cool motion charts – Part 5

Filed under: Data visualization, Free stuff — kevinmacdonell @ 2:08 pm

Here’s the fifth and final part of my tutorial on creating a cool motion chart from your complex data set. (Click here to go back to Part 1.) This part is important, and a little tricky.

See, everytime the flash-based chart has to be re-drawn, you lose all your preferred settings. Unfortunately the method for preserving your preferred ‘default state’ is not straightforward. I expect Google will make it easier in future, but in the meantime, here are the steps:

  1. Set up the chart exactly as you wish it to appear (speed, axis and circle definitions, colours, categories, etc. and starting point in the time series).
  2. Click on the wrench in the lower right hand corner, then click on ‘Advanced’ at the bottom of the box that pops up. This makes the Advanced settings available in the window.
  3. Click on the Advanced bar, and you’ll see a small window containing the ‘state string’, which will start out something like, “{“xZoomedDataMin”:0,”yZoomedDataMin”:0,”stateVersion”:3,”xAxisOption …etc etc”. Copy the entire string, and close the settings popup.
  4. In the title bar near the top of your chart, click on “Edit Settings.” Paste the state string into the area labeled “Default state“.
  5. Click ‘Apply and close’

Now your chart will always display properly whenever you load it up, and whenever you share with others.

Cool motion charts – Part 4

Filed under: Data visualization, Free stuff — Tags: , , , — kevinmacdonell @ 1:30 pm

In my previous post in this tutorial, I described how to assemble the data to create your bubble chart. Now comes the relatively painless part: Pasting it into Google Docs and inserting a Google Gadget – the motion chart itself.

To review, the required columns in your spreadsheet should be in this order:

  • A column to define the bubbles (in our case, this is Class Decade)
  • A column to define the time series (Year, i.e. fiscal year of giving)
  • At least two columns of numerical data for the x-axis and y-axis. (You can have more than two columns, to give you more options for charting, but you need at least two. I used Median Gift for the y-axis, and a choice of either Number of Donors or % Participation for the x-axis.)
  • You may also have a column for Category, which just labels the circles in the legend (in our example, this is just a duplication of the data in the Class Decade column)

Assuming you already have a Google or Gmail account, navigate to Google Docs and click on ‘Create New’. Choose ‘Spreadsheet’ from the drop-down menu. Copy all the cells of your Excel spreadsheet, and paste them directly into the Google spreadsheet. Give the file a name, and Save.

(I’m going to assume that you have permission to post your institution’s data online. Keep in mind that you can block public access to the data, or limit it to select invitees who have to log in, or make it wide open and available to all. In any case, it would be best to seek approval.)

Select all of the cells in your sheet that contain your chart data, including the column headers. (Don’t select whole columns – click on cell A1, then hold shift down while clicking on the rightmost cell in the very last row of the sheet.)

In the spreadsheet menu, choose Insert. Click on Gadget.

A window of options will open. You might have to scroll down to find Motion Chart. Click the ‘Add to spreadsheet’ button.

The chart settings window will appear on top of your spreadsheet. (If you don’t see it, scroll up!)

The Range field will already be populated, because you had those cells selected before inserting the gadget. You can modify the range if need be.

Enter a title in the Title field. Ignore the other fields for now.

Click Apply and close.

The chart will take a second or two to appear. It won’t look right – we need to tweak it a bit.

It will also be rather small and hard to work with. To move it to its own sheet, clicking on the little down-arrow at the top left of the chart title bar, and select “Move to own sheet …” from the drop-down menu.

(For additional help at this stage, select Help from the More drop-down menu at top right.)

Now let’s choose the correct values for our x-axis and y-axis.

Click on the x-axis name, and choose the desired value from the options that pop up. (We’re using % Participation.)

(Ignore the Lin and Log menus for now. We’ll leave the scale as Linear, rather than Logarithmic.)

Now click on the y-axis name, and choose Median $.

Notice that the bubbles adjust their orientation accordingly.

Other items that you’ll want to tweak are below. All of these are able to be saved as the default state of your chart:

  • Colour: This should be set to ‘Category
  • Size: Set this to ‘Number alumni‘. For fun, you can also set this to ‘Number of donors’ – then the bubbles will change size over time!
  • Playback speed: The little triangle to the right of the Play button. I usually set this on the slowest speed.
  • Starting year: Push the slider all the way to the left.
  • Labels and trails: You can also click on individual bubbles to label them, or display their trails as they move.

If you play around a bit, which I know you will, you’ll notice that it’s very easy to lose all your settings. And if you try to share your chart with someone else, it won’t display in their browser the way you want it to.

The method for saving your default chart state will be covered in Part 5.

9 December 2009

Quick and easy visuals of large text files

Filed under: Data visualization, Free stuff, Text — Tags: , , , , — kevinmacdonell @ 7:30 pm

Earlier this year we conducted an extensive survey of alumni, made up mostly of scale statements but including a few free-text comment fields as well. Respondents typed in nearly 80,000 words in comments – that’s slightly longer than the first Harry Potter book!

Somebody has to read all this stuff (not me!). But what can we do with it in the meantime?

Why not play with it in Wordle?

According to the web site (, Wordle is “a toy for generating ‘word clouds’ from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like.”

Here is a word cloud for the free-text comments made in response to the question, “Do you have any other comments about your academic experience?

You can also enter the URL of any blog or feed into Wordle, and it will generate a word cloud from that. Here’s what a Wordle of this blog looks like (so far).

Word cloud for CoolData blog (up to 9 Dec 2009).

Useful or just a toy? I did use some of these word clouds in a presentation of the alumni survey results, and the response told me it was worth it. It’s a cool thing, and people like cool things. I also see Wordle creations in newspapers – I think the first example I ever saw was a comparison of campaign speeches made by Barack Obama and John McCain.

What do you use word clouds for?

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