The Magic of Data Visualization

I love data.  And I adore playing with it graphically, as I learn a lot from graphing longitudinal data about things I’m involved in.  However, I find that almost all of the web services I use suck at providing visualization / graphing tools for their data.  For example, I’ve never really found any of the graphing options in any of the running software I use satisfying or useful.

I’ve known about Tableau Software for a long time.  The CEO and founder is Christian Chabot – we worked together at Softbank Venture Capital.  Tableau has built a significant software company and when Christian called me up to ask if they could play around with some of my running data as part of their launch of their new web-based services, I agreed.

The hardest part of this exercise was getting granular running data out of the various systems that I keep it in.  I use a Garmin watch and have very detailed GPS and heart rate data on every run I do.  However, the two primary systems I store this data in (MotionBased and TrainingPeaks) have abysmal data export systems.  After fighting with them for a while, I eventually did the equivalent of “scraping” the data by exporting the data underlying a bunch of individual runs.

Once I got the data out, Tableau was pretty amazing.  It was extremely easy to use (in comparison – say – to Microsoft Excel where you can spend hours and still not get the format you want.)  And – it was extremely fast.

After I played around it with some, the data wizards at Tableau took over and created the widget that you see above.  There are a few things to note about it:

  • It is a live exploratory visualization, not a static chart.  You can select workout days, highlight across views to see heart rate, or filter to different kinds of activities.
  • This was done with no custom development. Typically interactive visualizations like this take a lot of custom flash work; with Tableau anyone can create and publish an interactive visualization with drag & drop ease.
  • Tableau’s vision with this product is to set data free on the web. They want to make real data, no charts, accessible to people so they can question conclusions and offer their own analysis.

Tableau has been around for years and has thousands of customers, but visualizations like these are still in private beta as they make sure they hammer out all the bugs on their latest release.  I’m not an investor, but based on what I see I wish I was.  Nicely done Tableau (and Christian).

  • Minor nitpick: when you click on an individual data point, the detail information shouldn't obscure the data point in the chart. It's evident in the top bar graphs where the height of the bar is covered by the detail.

    On the flip side, cool to see your heart rate lowering over time.

  • hey, here's a neat example of some cool interactive data visualizations – and some astounding figures: — go to gapminder world and "explore the world"

    • Excellent recomendation.

      My wife and I first saw this on TED. Coolest data visualization either of us had seen in a long time by far. Talk about promoting a better understanding in the world – this should be required watching by social studies students of all ages.

  • Kyle Krall
  • Nick

    I'm not sure if this post is primarily meant to be a plug, but if you want a data visualization platform that has been doing this for a while (and doing it well) then check out Spotfire (acquired by Tibco):

    • Well – I’m not an investor and I don’t benefit from it being a plug (other than karma) but I suppose it is a “plug” of something I like a lot.

      Is the Spotfire stuff web-based and inexpensive (e.g. a single user like me can easily purchase it / use it?)  That would be a cool option.

  • Very nice – I'm going to have to play with that. I wonder why it runs fine in Firefox, but doesn't load in Flock (also Mozilla-based)?

  • No clue on Flock but I’ll pass this on to the folks at Tableau to see if they have clues.

    • Ross Bunker

      Hmm…I just installed Flock 2.5 and it works fine. Perhaps some add-ons or other things that are getting in the way?


  • Real-time data visualization offers the first piece of a feedback system that can turn systems into more gamelike applications. Interesting…

  • Brad, out of curiosity, which watch model? I've been contemplating the upgrade from my nike+ setup which works great, but I'd like to get the heartrate info as well as elevation and GPS tracks proper. Anything you would recommend?

    • I’ve been using Garmin watches for several years.  First the 205, then the 305.  I’ve now got a 405 which I’m trying to get used to (I still prefer the 305, but mine broke recently).

  • The thing I love about data is that I don't need to know anything about running, heart rate, etc. all I need to do is watch what someone who does know it, manipulate and use the data. Then I know what the most important things about the sport are.

  • rob
  • Not sure if you've read it yet but I've been enjoying the book 'Envisioning Information' by Edward R. Tufte lately which covers a lot around the theory and history of data visualization.

    • I’ve read all of Tufte’s books.  He’s amazing.

  • I can't agree more. Data Visualization has some magics in its. We can see patterns, trends, and many other things that we couldn't see in ordinary data sheets with tons of numbers. Unfortunately, humans, or maybe just me, have a hard time recognizing data plots with more than 4 dimensions.

  • I don’t usually reply to posts but I will in this case. I’ve been experiencing this very same problem with a new WordPress installation of mine. I’ve spent weeks calibrating and getting it ready when all of a sudden… I cannot delete any content. It’s a workaround that, although isn’t perfect, does the trick so thanks! I really hope this problem gets solved properly asap.


  • Such a good article, caught my sympathy!

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