For data to be useful to humans, we have to be able to visualise it in a way that lets us understand the storey it tells, and communicate it to others.
Data visualisation tools are constantly evolving to offer more powerful features while improving accessibility and user-friendliness. With an increasing number of job roles requiring us to present data to back up our decision-making, visualisation tools are an increasingly important tool in our working lives.
Today's top visualisation and dashboarding tools are cloud-native, so they are able to connect with your data wherever it is stored, and the key trends are artificial intelligence, automation, and augmentation. This means there is a strong shift towards smart, self-teaching applications that become increasingly efficient at carrying out routine, mundane, and even not-so mundane tasks.
In 2020, it’s still not the case that every company will be ready to dive headlong into this brave new world of AI and automation, but the change is coming. Analysts at Gartner predict that by 2025, we will get most of our information from data-driven narrative storytelling, and 75% of these storeys will be generated by automated systems.
The tools listed below are either dedicated visualisation solutions or complete analytics packages that are particularly noted for their visualisation capabilities. Here's my roundup of the best tools that are available today.
Microsoft's industry-standard business analytics platform offers some very useful and intuitive data visualisation functionality. PowerBI makes it simple for someone with no prior experience to start creating interactive dashboards and charts from their enterprise data. As with all of Microsoft’s cloud business services, it is designed to allow teams to work collaboratively on data projects. It also allows queries to be made in natural, conversational language with the results quickly rendered in clear and eye-catching graphics. PowerBI comes with a good range of templates and visualisation options, with new ones available either for free or for purchase on Microsoft's Azure marketplace. It is also available in a free version, and affordable in its enterprise version, starting from $10 per licence.
Tableau is the grandmaster of enterprise data visualisation tools, but that doesn't mean it will be the perfect solution for everyone. Tableau was acquired by Salesforce last year, but is still available as a free version known as Tableau Public.
Tableau has been considered as one of the leaders in data visualisation for some time, and also works as a comprehensive, cloud-based analytics solution providing all of the BI capabilities you're likely to need.
But it is its power and flexibility when it comes to generating graphical representations of data it is most renowned for. Visualisation is baked-in to Tableau's functionality – right down to the user interface – designed to help the user make better decisions about the most efficient way of extracting and communicating meaning from data.
Qlik offers a powerful data visualisation and business intelligence platform, which is used by over 50,000 customers across the world. The solution is available as a free trial, so you can give it a quick go to see if it seems suitable.
QlikSense supports not just powerful data visualisation but a full range of analytics services, from data exploration to conversational analytics and augmented intelligence. One of its strengths is the ability to ingest data from multiple sources – including external data from cloud services – to be combined and analysed together thanks to its flexible Connect and API functions.
There is also a strong community, and there are plenty of third-party resources available online to help new users understand how to use it.
Dundas BI is a data visualisation and business intelligence platform. It is an easy to use tool that allows anyone to create attractive data visualisations and dashboards. Dundas BI can also be embedded into your own existing systems and applications, which makes it an attractive choice for those companies that want to enhance their existing tools with better data visualisation and analytics capabilities.
This is a dedicated visualisation tool geared towards creating charts, presentations, and dashboards for enterprise use. A simple drag-and-drop interface lets you quickly build documents or slides packed with graphical information. Its collaborative-working elements are particularly strong, enabling teams to experiment with different data representations in different ways to see what works best. If you need a dashboarding tool specifically designed for infographics, charts, slides, and maps, to plug into an existing analytics platform, Infogram is certainly worth a look.
Google Charts is a great place to start your exploration of the possibilities of data visualisation. It's totally free to use and lets you quickly start creating graphical representations of your data and building interactive dashboards. It can output HTML 5, so your visualisations and dashboards can be built into any website, and although it is very simple to use, it gives you access to the same tools that Google use themselves for their own analytics and development operations, so it's also flexible and powerful.
Looker is a forerunner of a new generation of visualisation tools, aimed at putting analytics and dashboarding in the hands of employees throughout an organisation, rather than the sole preserve of data scientists. It offers a huge library of clear and colourful templates that can be applied to your data, allowing you to experiment with different methods of presentation. Dashboards can be set up for multiple user types, so customers, staff, partners, or management teams all see what's important to them.
Paraview is open source and totally free, but due to its focus on analysing scientific datasets, it may not be the most suitable tool for a beginner to start out on. However, if you fall into this niche user group, then you may find it's the best-suited tool for your needs. Due to its popularity in the scientific data analytics community, there's plenty of help and support available online from the specialists who use it every day. It's particularly suited towards creating complex visualisations from scientific datasets and is capable of producing some incredibly detailed graphics in fields such as astrophysics and fluid dynamics.
Of course, everyone knows Excel is a spreadsheet – but just as it has evolved to offer basic data analytics capabilities, it also provides some surprisingly flexible data visualisation functions that may be good enough to meet your needs. Although it doesn't provide a lot of the advanced functionality around dashboarding and API connectivity, if you just need to learn the basics of preparing simple data visualisations, and already have access to Excel, it could be a good place to start. However, I would recommend the entry-level data visualiser also look at Google Charts to get a more thorough overview of the cloud-native, connected, and collaborative ecosystem that's available today.
Bernard Marr is an internationally bestselling author, futurist, keynote speaker, and strategic advisor to companies and governments. He advises and coaches many of the world’s best-known organisations on strategy, digital transformation and business performance. LinkedIn has recently ranked Bernard as one of the top 5 business influencers in the world and the No 1 influencer in the UK. He has authored 16 best-selling books, is a frequent contributor to the World Economic Forum and writes a regular column for Forbes. Every day Bernard actively engages his almost 2 million social media followers and shares content that reaches millions of readers.