One way to describe this software is: take the Excel charting engine, make it a standalone app that can chart data from any source, and give it a web/community sharing component for publishing charts and dashboards on the web. Except this charting engine is light years ahead of Excel in terms of both its capabilities as well as ease of use.
But take note: Tableau Public, while free, is not the same as a free version of the Tableau.What the developers have done is create a version of Tableau that is fully functional, but only if you are willing to make the charts and the data you use public for others to potentially see. They did this by restricting the user’s ability to save their projects locally to their own hard drives, instead allowing them to only save to online storage accounts.
In other words, this product is geared towards bloggers or users of social media whose projects are designed for public consumption and/or publishing on the web (or personal projects where you might not care that someone else can potentially look at your data).
The basic premise behind a charting engine like this is that with so much data being freely published on the web, individual users or bloggers who have something to say can take this data and use a tool like Tableau to visually summarize it or outline certain relationships or a point of view.
The best way to illustrate what this software can do is through this demonstrational video (it feels like a commercial, I know, but its a good overview). Also see interactive demo below:
Here are more notes on this program:
- Ease of use: the developers deserve credit for making a powerful product that is nonetheless very accessible. The interface is certainly intuitive enough that those who like to experiment and tinker around before reading instructions will probably be plenty pleased. However, to get the most out of Tableau Public you can watch the training videos and/or read the help documents.
- Maps: are noteworthy because of the way Tableau Public can instantly embed your data onto a Google-maps style map and automatically zoom in and out. Add to this Tableau Public’s ability to instantly drill down and create interactive charts, and you can imagine the wow-factor that geographic-based charts can have.
- Interactivity: unlike Excel, charts created with Tableau are clickable and interactive, allowing you to click on any interesting part of the chart to drill down and/or explore further.
- Drag and drop: what is cool is that everything can be done with drag and drop, including the placement and positioning of whatever element is out there, making this software easy to learn and to use.
- Publishing on the web: is like any other element you add to a website (see demo below). Tableau Public will give you an embed code, and will make this embed code available for others to take and use in their own sites/blogs. (You may need to edit the width/height in the code, as I did, to fit the widget in your particular site template). What is interesting, though, is that you as the owner/creator of the visualization can keep control of your baby even after it is published. You can go in later and make additions and/or changes and the data visualizations will automatically reflect this without having to install a new embed code.
- “Show me”: this is a feature where you can ask Tableau for some visualization suggestions; click on a few fields and press this button, and Tableau will present you with some charting choices to begin with. Overall not a bad way to get started.
- Calculated fields: are supported. Tableau will let you create new fields using calculations performed on existing fields, very reminiscent of Excel.
- Dashboards vs. charts: the distinction may not be instantly obvious, but Tableau Public allows for the creation of dashboards with multiple charts embedded in them. These have an interactive component where users can play with the data via sliders or filters, etc.
- Data sources: aside from Excel, Access, and CSV/Text files, Tableau Public can access a wide range of data sources including many database servers.
- Downloading: you will have to provide a valid email address and create an online account to download.
The verdict: this software is simply terrific; I tested it with some work-related data and was so happy with my charts that I took screenshots to preserve them for later use (given that saving them publicly is out). As a tool designed to turn data into knowledge, and facilitate the public dissemination of information, Tableau public is in a league of its own.
The developers also deserves a nod for the original way they made this powerful tool available for free for public use, without compromising their business version. I am willing to bet that this will be come a very common model for software distribution.
[Thanks go to reader Varna for tipping me off about this one!]
Version Tested: 5.1
Compatibility: Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7.
Go to the program home page to download the latest version (approx 17 megs).
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