Fun with data

No matter your job, the amount of data you consume each month is probably going up exponentially. For most of us there is a time when we need to share that information with others, but column after column of data in a spreadsheet can be tedious. Fortunately there are some fantastic, free, online tools available to turn endless amounts of data into cool maps, attractively visualised graphs or even storyboards.


Crowdmap is not just a cool tool for mapping data but also a fantastic way to collect additional data. Crowdmap can be used to track geographic reports on just about any event. It’s built on the Ushahidi platform which was originally built to monitor election violence in Kenya, but is today used for a range of mapping services.

Crowdmap can be used to collate reports from around a country (or even globally) and map those onto interactive maps. Users can log reports using the web, e-mail, SMS or any of the smartphone applications available. Incident reports can include links to video, websites and other data as well as the standard location information.

In its most serious form it could be used to track disasters such as floods, fires or even election results. It can just as easily be used to track your company’s various branches or the services they provide; or it could be used to map sales of a product across the country. Even better, evolving crowdmaps can be played back to reflect changes over time.

Open Heat Map

While Crowdmap is great for mapping data as it evolves, OpenHeatMap is perfect for taking existing data and mapping it in any way you like.

OpenHeatMap takes spreadsheet data, including data in Google Docs spreadsheets, and converts it into coloured heat maps. There are myriad ways the data can be represented and, like Crowdmap, if you have datasets from different time periods these can be played back to illustrate how they evolved.

Heat maps created with OpenHeatMap are also easy to embed in online articles or other presentations.


Data doesn’t always have to be in spreadsheet columns. One of the major generators of information today are social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The problem however, is that this information is spread across a range of services which are usually isolated in their own silos.

Storify is one of a new generation of online tools that makes it easy to pull these various sources into one place.

Storify makes it easy to search multiple social media streams and mash these up into new streams around particular topics. So, for example, a major news event such as the assassination of Bin Laden, will generate thousands, if not millions, of tweets, videos, news stories, blog posts or photos. Storify makes it easy to search these various sources for information and then drag-and-drop these into a coherent timeline. The timelines can include freeform text, pictures,videos, tweets and many other sources.

Like OpenHeatmap, Storify “stories” can be embedded in website pages and other presentations using basic HTML.

For sample timelines created using Storify take a look at the Storify website.

Google Fusion Tables

Google has a huge collection of free online tools to slice and dice data just about any way you can imagine. Among them is Fusion Tables, a relatively simple tool to upload, merge, share and visualise large volumes of date. Essentially it’s a super-powerful spreadsheet with some clever enhancements.

With Fusion Tables you can upload your own tabulated data (or use other publicly available data), merge it with other tables and then visualise the results in a variety of ways including as mapped data, charts, timelines or even storylines if you have the right kind of data. The results can then be embedded into your website using simple iframe tags, which Google provides for you.

If that sort of thing grabs you, then another Google project will be right up your street: Google Public Data Explorer. The data explorer is a collection of publicly available data that provides for hours of entertainment if you’re into manipulating data.

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Fun with data