Tool Critique: Tableau Public – Creative and Interactive Data Visualization Software for Data Rookies and Professionals

 Tableau #1

The popularity of data visualization has surged in recent years, to the point where it is almost impossible not to stumble upon these images while surfing the web or reading through a textbook. I have always found the use of data visualization interesting, especially in an online context where many of these images allow for user interaction to enhance the data experience. However, as Mark Carl Rom astutely remarks, “while popular and scholarly publications widely use visualizations, the skills necessary for developing analytically powerful and a esthetically compelling graphics are not widely taught” (Rom, 2015). Taking Rom’s point into consideration, it is important that LIS professionals are aware of data visualization software that is accessible and user-friendly in order to help our patrons and clients enhance their own works through these sleek an interactive images. That is exactly why I have decided to review and critique Tableau Public this week.

Tableau Public provides free software (compatible with Windows and Mac) that allows users of all skill levels to create visually appealing and interactive data visualizations. Tableau Software was developed by three colleagues who met at Stanford University – including prominent co-founder Pat Harahan, who is also a founding member of Pixar Studios – with the goal of “making data more accessible for everyday people” (Tableau Software, 2015). The software has been endorsed by a collection of high profile clients, including Facebook and Audi AG. It offers a range of data visualization software for varying skillsets, However, I choose to review Tableau Public because of its price point and its purpose. As I mentioned before, Tableau public is FREE! This automatically makes the software more accessible for beginners and LIS professionals. Furthermore, Tableau public is built specifically to share visualizations online and features web publishing tools that are essential for making visualizations accessible to the creator’s audience.

I personally tested out Tableau public and will use this blog post to outline my experiences with the software. I have created a quick and easy tutorial section, aimed at providing the reader (that’s you!) with an overview of the basic features this software offers. I will also discuss some of my personal successes and difficulties with the software and reflect on its potential use by LIS professionals. I hope you all enjoy!

Tutorial: A (Very) Basic Rundown of Tableau Public Software

Step 1: Register for a free account

This step is pretty easy and straightforward. The site asks for a minimal amount of personal information (with the option of adding personal website URLs and linking to social media accounts). This profile gives the user 10GB of storage for their “vizes” (the abbreviated form the tableau website uses to refer to data visualizations). The account also provides an option to make “vizes” private or public. I have provided a screenshot of the registration window below.

Tableau Public Registration

I should also note that Tableau Public does not make registering for an account was not an obvious first step. You are able to download and use the software without an account, however, in order to publish your work online you must have an account.

Step 2: Download or Create your data

In the Tableau Public training video (locate HERE) the narrator states that the user can import any file containing “comma separated values”; I used an excel file (.xlsx) that I downloaded from the City of Toronto Data Catalogue (original file can be found HERE). I have provided a picture of this spreadsheet below.

Excel Spreadsheet

I chose the Wellbeing Toronto – Safety Report because it provided a range of data that I could play around with in Tableau Public. You can easily create your own data sets in Excel (if you are unfamiliar with Excel, the tutorials on Lynda.com may be useful). When you have located or created your data, simply open it under the “connect to file”. Once you have opened your file you screen should look similar to the image below.

Tableau Public Sheet One

One thing I found frustrating about my imported data was that I had to rename all of my columns. My column headers were not imported successfully, which created a bit of extra work. However, I did find it helpful that under the hear for each row there is a dropdown menu that allows the user to define the type of data that is represented (whole numbers, geographic coordinates, etc.).

Step 3: Create Your Own “Vizes”

When you are happy with your data simply click the “Sheet One” tab in the lower left hand corner to begin constructing you “vize”. This is the step that I ultimately found a tad confusing at first. As much as the controls are easy and generally consist of dragging and dropping various data elements, where to place the data was confusing. I found the tutorial videos Tableau provides extremely helpful and essential for new users. These videos take you through the steps of creating and customizing your data visualization, along with the various features the software has to offer.

Step 4: Publish to the Web

There are multiple ways to save your “vize” both online and offline. However, saving it as a .jpg on your computer reduces its utility by eliminating its interactivity. To publish your “vize” online you simply select the “file” tab at the top of the page and click “Save to Tableau Public” (as shown in the picture below).

Tableau Public Web Publishing

This will then redirect the user to a webpage containing a URL link to your “vize”. This process was simple and quick to complete. However, embedding this visualization into WordPress is an issue (see Tableau’s note on compatibility HERE). Simply click the image below to access my interactive “vize”!

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 12.02.59 AM

Reflections: My Overall Impressions

What Can This Software Really Do?

Overall, I was impressed with the quality and variety of data visualizations I was able to create with this free and (relatively) simple software. Admittedly, I did not get the opportunity to explore the more advanced features Tableau Public has to offer (including interactive maps displaying regional data), but the basic features worked well and helped me create an interactive data visualization that would enhance a webpage or blog post. Web publishing was also straightforward, although I did encounter a few issues embedding my visualization into this blog post. The embedded link provided did not work properly in WordPress, which led me to explore alternate options. I tried coding the visualization in myself and then discovered that, unfortunately, Tableau is not compatible with WordPress.

Furthermore, although Tableau Public offers a great platform for users to interact with data, it lacks features that allow users to interact and collaborate with other users. In an article exploring the user-related statistics of Tableau Public Kristi Morton states: “Interestingly, while publishing visualizations is common, collaborations among users remain infrequent. Incentivizing and supporting collaborations thus remain critical challenges for these systems” (Morton et. al., 2014). Although Tableau Public promotes a strong sense of community amongst their users, they provided few that encouraged collaboration. There is relatively little opportunity for interaction beyond viewing or sharing another user’s “vize”.

Why Should LIS Professionals Care?

Despite some of the limitation I have discussed, I believe that Tableau Public can be a valuable tool for LIS professionals. First, the software provides a great teaching tool for public and academic librarians. Students in various disciplines can utilize this software to create a supplement to projects involving a variety of data, furthermore, Tableau has the potential to enhance a student’s understanding of the statistics they are viewing and working with, Similarly, business professional (such as real estate agents or small business owners) can benefit from the cost effective tool to present data to the public, colleagues, and stakeholders; therefore, public librarians could use seminars in Tableau Public as a great outreach opportunity.

Beyond teaching, LIS professionals can benefit from Tableau Public by creating interactive visualizations to enhance their own products. Because of the range of visualizations that can be created, this software may even help LIS professionals create a visually appealing and interesting supplement to their own presentations. For example. using the interactive mapping tool might be a great way to highlight demographic information that could be relevant to building a library or information organization’s budget.

Overall, I enjoyed using Tableau public and can see a variety of uses for it in my own future. I think it is important to understand that data visualization has surged in popularity because it enhances the user’s own understanding of the information they are presented with. Interactivity also allows the user to engage with this data, creating an opportunity to become fully immersed in information they may have previously glanced over. In a world where information overload is a frequent occurrence, software like Tableau Public really helps user’s make sense of it all.


Morton, K., Balazinska, M., Grossman, D., Kosara, R., & Mackinlay, J. (2014). “Public data and

visualizations: How are many eyes and tableau public used for collaborative analytics?”.

ACM SIGMOD Record, 43(2), 17-22. Retrieved June 1, 2015 doi:10.1145/2694413.2694417

Rom, M. C. (2015). “Numbers, pictures, and politics: Teaching research methods through data

Visualizations”. Journal of Political Science Education, 11(1), 11. Retrieved June 1, 2015 doi:

10.1080/15512169.2014.985108

Tableau Software (2015) “We help people see and understand data”. Retrieved June 1, 2015,

from http://mission.tableau.com

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s