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Big Data and the ever-growing access we have to more information is the driving force behind artificial intelligence and the wave of technological change sweeping across all industries.

But all the data in the world is useless – in fact it can become a liability – if you can’t understand it. Data visualization is about how to present your data, to the right people, at the right time, in order to enable them to gain insights most effectively.

Luckily visualization solutions are evolving as rapidly as the rest of the tech stack. Charts, videos, infographics and at the cutting edge even virtual reality and augmented reality (VR & AR) presentations offer increasingly engaging and intuitive channels of communication.

Here’s my run-down of some of the best, most popular or most innovative data visualization tools available today. These are all paid-for (although they all offer free trials or personal-use licences). Look out for another post soon on completely free and open source alternatives.

Tableau

Tableau is often regarded as the grand master of data visualization software and for good reason. Tableau has a very large customer base of 57,000+ accounts across many industries due to its simplicity of use and ability to produce interactive visualizations far beyond those provided by general BI solutions. It is particularly well suited to handling the huge and very fast-changing datasets which are used in Big Data operations, including artificial intelligence and machine learning applications, thanks to integration with a large number of advanced database solutions including Hadoop, Amazon AWS, My SQL, SAP and Teradata. Extensive research and testing has gone into enabling Tableau to create graphics and visualizations as efficiently as possible, and to make them easy for humans to understand.

QlikSense

Qlik with their QlikSense tool is the other major player in this space and Tableau’s biggest competitor. The vendor has over 40,000 customer accounts across over 100 countries, and those that use it frequently cite its highly customizable setup and wide feature range as a key advantage. This however can mean that it takes more time to get to grips with and use it to its full potential. In addition to its data visualization and data exploration capabilities Qlik offers powerful business intelligence, analytics and enterprise reporting capabilities and I particularly like the clean and clutter-free user interface. There is also a strong community and there are plenty of third-party resources available online to help new users understand how to integrate it in their projects.

Microsoft Power BI

Microsoft also competes strongly in this space with its Power BI tool. Power BI is a powerful suite of business analytics tools with great data visualisation capabilities. A big advantage that come with Power BI is the intuitive user interface which users of any Microsoft product will be familiar with. Power BI also comes with a large support eco system and a myriad of supported data sources. In terms of data visualisation, Power BI offers a large range of standard data visualisation formats anyone would expect as well as the ability to create customized and user-defined visualizations as well as sophisticated 3D maps. Finally, it is very competitively priced.

Fusion Charts

This is a very widely-used, JavaScript-based charting and visualization package that has established itself as one of the leaders in the paid-for market. It can produce 90 different chart types and integrates with a large number of platforms and frameworks giving a great deal of flexibility. One feature that has helped make FusionCharts very popular is that rather than having to start each new visualization from scratch, users can pick from a range of “live” example templates, simply plugging in their own data sources as needed.

Highcharts

Like FusionCharts this also requires a licence for commercial use, although it can be used freely as a trial, non-commercial or for personal use. Its website claims that it is used by 72 of the world’s 100 largest companies and it is often chosen when a fast and flexible solution must be rolled out, with a minimum need for specialist data visualization training before it can be put to work. A key to its success has been its focus on cross-browser support, meaning anyone can view and run its interactive visualizations, which is not always true with newer platforms.

Datawrapper

Datawrapper is increasingly becoming a popular choice, particularly among media organizations which frequently use it to create charts and present statistics. It has a simple, clear interface that makes it very easy to upload csv data and create straightforward charts, and also maps, that can quickly be embedded into reports.

Plotly

Plotly enables more complex and sophisticated visualizations, thanks to its integration with analytics-oriented programming languages such as Python, R and Matlab. It is built on top of the open source d3.js visualization libraries for JavaScript, but this commercial package (with a free non-commercial licence available) adds layers of user-friendliness and support as well as inbuilt support for APIs such as Salesforce.

Sisense

Sisense provides a full stack analytics platform but its visualization capabilities provide a simple-to-use drag and drop interface which allow charts and more complex graphics, as well as interactive visualizations, to be created with a minimum of hassle. It enables multiple sources of data to be gathered into one easily accessed repositories where it can be queried through dashboards instantaneously, even across Big Data-sized sets. Dashboards can then be shared across organizations ensuring even non technically-minded staff can find the answers they need to their problems.

Infographics have become an increasingly popular data visualization tool which enable users to quickly give an overview of pretty much any topic. They rely on using images to accompany bite-sized pieces of information, in keeping with the theory that our brains are better at storing and recalling images than words or numbers alone.

Luckily thanks to their explosion in popularity there are a good number of affordable or even free tools to help even the most artistically-challenged data gurus create attractive and helpful images.

Here’s an overview of some of the best that I have seen out there.

Subscription based service which lets you use 35 types of chart and 500 different maps, and a million stock images, to compose your infographic in a way which will grab your audience’s attention. Like most of the tools here it offers a number of basic templates which can easily be customized with the relevant statistics and graphics. Infogram stands out however by offering a very clean and user-friendly interface as well as a huge number of images which can be easily selected and dropped in.

Piktochart is hugely popular – boasting five million users – and widely regarded as an industry standard. Charts can be output as HTML making them ideal for web publishing, and its infographics are used by leading media organizations including Forbes, The Guardian and Techcrunch. It comes in a free version or a paid-for pro subscription, which gives access to an ever-growing number of customizable templates created by professional designers.

3. Visme

Visme isn’t just for creating infographics, it can do just about anything that you might want to illustrate using graphics, such as presentations, banners or interactive tutorials. It is particularly good for infographics though, thanks to the library of icons, images and fonts, and the ease with which your finished work can be shared online with your audience. The particular strength of this tools is in creating sophisticated and professional-looking graphics thanks to its ability to handle animations and interactive elements.

Easel.ly’s USP is cleverly hidden in the name – it’s one of the simplest solutions out there for people who want to quickly put together clean and modern-looking infographics. One of the strong points of the medium is that the format forces the creator to cut away all of the extraneous and potentially confusing information and focus only on what is essential to getting their message across to their audience. Easel.ly makes this very simple thanks to its intuitive interface and library of tutorials and examples.

5. Blugraphic

Not a tool as such – Blugraphic provides resources such as images, icons, backgrounds and fonts, which can be put together by anyone with a basic knowledge of image editing programs (such as Adobe Illustrator or the open source Inkscape) to create sharp-looking visuals. Over 200 of them are provided free for personal or commercial use, and many more are available from creators and designers whose work is redistributed through the site.

6. Canva

Another tool which can create far more than just infographics – but it has features specifically tailored to their creation, and is undoubtedly one of the simplest ways of getting started. So it’s definitely deserving of a place on this list. Canva is built by people who understand the importance of a thoughtful approach to graphic design – and the tool makes effort to pass some of that on to the user with step-by-step guides through tasks such as choosing appropriate colors and typefaces. This part of a designer’s work is very hard to automate and without some basic guidance, very easy to get wrong!

Vengage concentrates solely on infographics, and doing them well. Users choose from over 100 templates then are walked through a simple three-step process to tell their story in the minimum amount of words, pictures and images necessary to get their message across. It also allows the inclusion of interactive elements such as charts which react when an audience moves a mouse or clicks links.

8. Ceros

Ceros stands apart from the others mentioned here as it is specifically geared towards making interactive infographics. If a still image won’t quite make the impression you want, then you might want to take a look at this tool. Interactive infographics may take more time to put together, and require a bit more in the way of design skills to unlock their full potential. But there’s no doubt that they make up for this by providing a more engaging experience for the user, and allowing more detailed and complex stories to be told.

This is actually a social media sentiment analysis engine. But it’s included here due to the fact that it easily allows data to be presented in infographic form, making it very simple to communicate what hot topics people are talking about, or how the conversations we are having online relate to each other. For example, how many people who mention brands are also interested in talking about movies, fashion or any other subject that gets Twitter and Facebook users excited? If this is the theme of the information you want to get across, then this could be the right free tool for you.

10. Visually

Think that your project needs a professional touch? Visually differs from the other tools here as it actually pairs you with a graphic designer (or team) who, after discussing your brief, will get to work to produce the results you’re looking for. If you don’t have even the small amount of time that it takes to learn to use one of the other services such as Infogram or Piktochart – or want the reassurance that your design work is being handled by a pro, then this could be a safe option.

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