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).