Data Visualization Tools

As a follow-up to my earlier post about templates for student research posters, I wanted to share a list of the top 20 data visualization tools, according to informatician Brian Suda.

Data visualization tools nicely bridge the gap between data analysis and the communication of results: sometimes they can help you and your student researchers discover new findings, and sometimes they can help the larger audience really grasp the significance of the work that has been done. A win either way, right?

Best, the list above includes a diverse set of tools. Tools listed range from the very basic and very user-friendly to more complex and code-driven options. Online and offline options are provided. The list also reflects the fact that data output takes many forms, offering tools for making graphs, charts, maps, as well as infographics and interactive data visualizations.

(Many thanks to Kim Mann and the Academic Technology blog at the College of William & Mary for drawing my attention to this resource!)

Templates for Student Research Posters

Whenever I see student research posters, I’m always amazed at the wonderful work our students do: these posters are really detailed and complex.

Throughout my education, the emphasis was largely on the components of good research questions and the varieties of data collection, manipulation, and analysis. Figuring out how to communicate my results was a secondary topic, if it was addressed at all.

And yet, presenting data is a very different skill from analyzing data.

Enter Colin Purrington and his downloadable templates for conference posters. Purrington, a former biology professor at Swarthmore College, provides some truly elegant poster templates. The page is long, but it’s useful, well-written, and quite clever. He also offers a wealth of design advice, including tips on layout, logos, typesetting, color choice, and other things which – when done correctly – can make a poster sing. There’s even an example of what not to do, and several suggestions about how to solicit feedback on your poster.

In helping your students put together their posters, you can share posters you’ve made, posters from conferences you’ve attended, as well as other online examples. But there’s nothing like a well-designed template (or five!) to help students clearly present their findings and teach them the very specific academic skill of poster creation. Successful poster design really is part of acculturation into the academy, requiring that students not only master the skills of summarizing their research and making wise design choices, but also gain an awareness of disciplinary norms and presentation styles.

Although Purrington’s examples and templates favor conference posters for the hard sciences, it would be easy enough to adapt the templates for many social science research presentations.

There’s no need to re-invent the (conference poster) wheel. Note, however, that you must cite the developer of the wheel in some instances. You may use Purrington’s templates without acknowledgement; but should you use text directly from his page, you’ll need to do the right thing. On that note, I originally found out about Colin Purrington via a post on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Percolator blog.


We’ve mentioned infographics before and we share them with you quite frequently, but we haven’t yet devoted a separate post to the process by which one can make an infographic. As the revelry of fall fades away, Thanksgiving seems ever-distant, and the reading keeps coming, why not mix things up with an infographic?

Infographics are visual representations of data built around a theme. In telling their story, infographics usually have a mix of several small pictographs, a fair amount of data presented in chart/graph form, and a few short paragraphs and key sentences.

Consider my favorite (meta-) example:

Edudemic has a nice summary of the background and educational theory of infographics in their Ultimate Guide to Infographics. They’ve also gathered an informative assortment of education infographics. While the story each infographic tells is interesting, the ways in which the creators have used color, data, images, fonts, and manipulated the size of different design elements provide great examples for those of us thinking about making our own infographics.

You can use the resources below to create one (or multiple) infographics to start discussion with your students. What a great way to illustrate different perspectives, time frames, or sub-topics in a quick and engaging format.

Alternately, it seems to me that creating infographics could be an intriguing exercise for students. Derek Bruff, Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, has a nice two-part blog post in which he lays out the logic behind an infographic assignment he gave his statistics students in the spring, the ways in which he prepared his students to look critically at visual presentations of data / information, how he created and refined the grading rubric, what tools his students used, and the terrific infographics they produced (post one and post two).

Without further ado, the infographic tools: lets you easily create your own infographics. Using their simple interface and templates, you can upload your own data (in Excel or csv format), add video if you’d like, and then share your product on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, the web, or grab the embed code provided underneath your finished infographic and put your design anywhere you’d like. If, for example, you’d like to place your infographic in your Pearson LearningStudio course shell, you can do so by pasting the embed code into the HTML view in the visual editor, as our documentation illustrates. is another infographic generator. Although it may not be as user-friendly as other options, is specifically designed to help create comparison-based infographics. You can use their provided templates and then enter a pair of Twitter or Facebook accounts, hashtags, or webpages about which you’d like to produce attractive statistics. I think the comparison feature is a nice angle, and certainly a real aid in framing a data-driven visual story.

For a bit of navel-gazing, or perhaps as part of a larger project about society or self, Intel’s What About Me? infographic engine offers to create an infographic based on your Twitter, YouTube, or Facebook profiles (or a combination of all three).

If the options above aren’t quite meeting your needs, you might take a peek at this list of 20 Web 2.0 Tools for Creating Infographics. If you’re still searching – either for theory, examples, data sources, or infographic tools / tutorials – Daily Tekk has a list of 100 Incredible Infographic Tools (these are broken into separate topics, thankfully!)

Last, if you’re using infographics in your course or considering doing so, we’d love to hear from you!

Google Maps

Have you ever wondered how Google makes those maps? What, exactly, happens before and after all those Google Street View vehicles hit the roads or trails? This piece in The Atlantic tells all – and has some suggestions about what Google’s mapping project and data management means for the future of all our data. (Thanks to Kim Mann over at the College of William & Mary’s Academic Technology blog for the link to this article.)

On a related note, I’d love to hear about what tools courses are using to integrate geographic information. I’d be willing to bet that the menu of commonly used tools has converged upon a few readily accessible free / affordable options while the variety of courses using these tools has greatly expanded. Prove me right or wrong in the comments!

Dropbox Cheat Sheet

Do you use Dropbox to back-up your files? (Because you are backing them up somewhere other than on your local machine, right?)

TCU folks can use their M: drive for free storage. However, some users may have had a set-up with Dropbox prior to their arrival at TCU, or may prefer the user interface of Dropbox or the ability to store larger files (Dropbox has tiered pricing, but offers some storage for free).

If you are using Dropbox, this is a pretty convenient Dropbox tips and tricks reference sheet.

Also, the same site also has tip sheets for Google Docs, Skype, Gmail, Twitter, Google Reader, the Windows CMD prompt, etc. If you find yourself frequently searching for shortcuts in your favorite programs, it might be worth a look to see if there’s sheet that meets your needs.

Google Drive

I have to admit, the name totally reminds me of the Google Street View Car (you know, the car that drives around recording the images for the awesome street view maps. Following the link above, I learned that, apparently, they have Google Street View trikes and snowmobiles, too – who knew?).

So, Google Drive is not about a car – but I still think the name (and the product) is pretty genius. Google drive is a cloud-based synching data storage solution, much like Dropbox and SpiderOak (there’s a great comparison chart of various storage options at the bottom of this page).

With Google Drive, you are provided with secure storage space and the drag-and-drop ability to keep files straight between multiple computers. You also have all the sharing and collaboration features that you’ve come to expect from Google Docs.

How is it different from Google Docs? Well, there’s a pricing structure: you get 5GB free, and the price increases from there (at rates that are quite competitive with other cloud-based data storage sites). Google Drive viewer supports an impressive list of file types, and has  a 10GB upload limit on files or folders. Google Drive comes with Google Image Search, allowing you to search images in your Google Drive based on key words.

Google Drive is linked to Google Docs, and once you add Google Drive to your Google account, it will replace Google Docs. Your Google Docs will appear in your Drive account with icons. If you are connected to the internet, clicking on a Google Doc icon will open a web browser so you can view the document. However, if you’re not connected to the internet, all you’ll have is an icon in your Google Drive folder on your computer’s hard drive.

Right now, the Google Drive mobile options are pretty limited; there’s only an Android app, but an iOS one is reportedly on the way. Additionally, the cautious among us might want to read this article on Google Drive’s terms of service.

Here’s the video intro to Google Drive:

Life in the Cloud

We’ve already written about Google Docs and DropBox several times, and while these may be the most familiar examples of cloud-based computing, there are many other cloud-based educational technologies out there. Here’s a nice list from John Kuglin of the University of Montana.

  • SlideRocket allows educators and students to build and deliver presentations online, offline, and via mobile devices.
  • SideVibe lets teachers build interactive lectures directly on top of existing web pages. Students can engage in online discussion, while teachers can collect and assess student work instantaneously.
  • Screencast-O-Matic allows users to record video directly from their browser and embed it into a lecture or presentation. They simply draw a box around what they want to capture and click “start recording.” Because it’s cloud-based, there is no software installation necessary.
  • With JetJaw, educators can perform real-time formative assessments: Students text a code from their mobile phones and can immediately participate in a survey or quiz. The results are instantaneously recorded and can even be displayed on-screen as they come in.
  • iCyte is used to capture web pages and pdfs and save them directly to the cloud. The tool archives pages just as they looked when they were saved, even if the site itself is updated or removed.

To this list I might add SpiderOak, a free cloud-based back-up service similar to DropBox. Storage is free up to 2 GB, with an option to purchase more space. Here’s a little tutorial to familiarize you with SpiderOak.

Are you using any of these cloud tools? Or other cloud-based solutions? What you like / dislike about life in the cloud?