How to visualise all that data we gather

A few months ago I had an interesting conversation with a work colleague about data visualisation. He had used data visualisation when preparing his thesis and had lots of good things to say about the ways he had been able to present otherwise difficult to comprehend findings. Around that same time I had been wondering about ways to better present management data for our library’s planning and review sessions.

Libraries collect a lot of data, from a wide range of sources. To identify trends in these data they are scrutinised in great detail but having a visual of what the data is saying would take some of the pain out of that process.

I spoke to my IT colleagues about what they felt might be a good solution in our existing tool kit and one of them was able to demo PerformancePoint Services in Sharepoint. I provided the excel files that stored the data and he was able to render these in to a dashboard and this met my needs in an introductory way. Anyone that has ever used SharePoint however will recognise however that it is less than intuitive when it comes to tasks therefore I was still keen to find out more. I went back to my colleague who had used the data visualisation tool called Tableau and decided in parallel to look at some samples of it in action.

Cornell University uses Tableau to present university information that you can manipulate yourself in a visual way  http://irp.dpb.cornell.edu/university-factbook. Harvard’s Law Library Explorer  uses Tableau also to present information about their collections http://librarylab.law.harvard.edu/toolkit/

There are probably many more examples of tableau in action but these are the ones I found that are trying to do something similar to me. If you know of other examples I’d be interested in seeing them.

I installed Tableau public (free) and played around with it and am still curious about the level of systems involvement in getting the data of each of our major library vendors in to Tableau, and also, what people’s experience is of the single user licence ($1,999 per annum)  – is 1 licence dequate for a library, does one person basically present the data and others then view it and interact with it?

While I experimented with Tableau another tool appeared on my radar, Power BI from Microsoft. This product is currently being explored at my institution so it’s too early to say if it will be the corporate solution but I will be keeping an eye on it too. Power BI Desktop allows you to visually explore your data through a free-form drag-and-drop canvas; that sounds like Tableau so I guess a lot of it will come down to user experience, and pricing of course.

When it comes to data visualisation, the big message seems to be ‘Less is More’.  In my view, having the set of metrics we KNOW we WANT TO zoom in on frequently is the very first part of the puzzle to get right. With some exceptions Tableau or Power BI should be able to do the rest.

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