<-- Advertise here.

As Google (Public Data Explorer) and Microsoft (Pivot) are getting into the mix of online data visualization tools, it is evident that this is a realm to carefully watch. Public data is de rigeur and blogs in this field are becoming ubiquitous, hence the perfect storm for online visualization. While public data is not necessary for online viz, it certainly makes it easy for the masses to enter the fray of data analytics.

As we announced a few months ago, we will be starting a new feature aimed at reviewing visualization tools. There are many tools out there that suit different needs and sport varied features. This ongoing feature will hopefully shed light on these tools and if they might fit into your workflow. In the meantime, please feel free to give your opinion on this new reviewing feature in the comments section below. Should we change any of the criteria? Are there any inaccuracies? What did we miss?

Our first software review will focus on the arguably current big three of online dataviz tools: Swivel, Many Eyes, and Tableau Public. During the next weeks, we will be publishing these in succession and culminating with a comparison of all three.

We chose the criteria based on user comments from our previous posts. Additionally, Benjamin, Patrick (who is reviewing Many Eyes), and I collaborated on refining the list and adding features we thought were compelling. We included a list of supported charts at the end of the post.

First, we want to focus on Swivel. Swivel was an early entrant to this field and thus is playing with the big kids in terms of online visualization. Benjamin Wiederkehr of Datavisualization.ch completed this review of Swivel.

Cost Free as long as the data is public.
$12/month for 20 Spreadsheets, 20 charts, 3 reports
$48/month for 80 Spreadsheets, 80 charts, 20 reports
$96/month for 200 Spreadsheets, 200 charts, 50 reports
Every plan comes with 15 days free trial
Free Version available Yes
Ease of Use Easy
Embeddable (into a web page) Yes
Shareable Yes
Comments / Discussion Yes (Comments for datasets, charts and reports)
Private workgroup Yes
Plugin Required None
Software Required None
Export Formats CSV, PNG
Data Storage Unlimited
Maturity (age of software) > 3 years
Customer Service Swivel provides assistance on various channels. User can get in touch with customer support using the feedback form on the website or via email. Developers receive guidance on the Google Group, the API Wiki on GitHub or the Swivel Code Blog.
Data Import Formats:
Oracle No
SQL Server No
Sybase No
DB2 No
PostgreSQL No
mySQL No
Excel Yes
Text Yes
other CSV (coma and tab separated), HTML, OpenDocument, Google Analytics, Google Docs, QuickBooks, Salesforce.com, Custom URL (HTML Documents)
Other features Ability to combine multiple charts to a sharable report. Charts can be arranged freely on a blank canvas. Additinal text and images can be included as well.
Data, Charts and Reports can be saved as drafts before making them available to the public or the private group.
Other users can comment on data, charts and reports.
Pros Easy to use and solid interface for manipulating the data (Spreadsheet application). Simple customization possibilities for charts. Private groups for confidential data create a real value for business use.
Cons The charting options are very limited and may not suffice all your business needs. Also the ability to customize colors and layout is very limited. Especially with a large amount of labels the legend as well as the mouse-over tooltip get overcrowded quickly. Reports can't be exported - I could see great value in downloading these reports as PDF, PNG or full HTML file to integrate elsewhere.
Reviews The thing that caught my attention right from the start is the clean and well-organized interface of this web-based application. Everything is build in HTML with some clever use of Javascript enhancements. The user account is also nicely organized and provides acces to everything within 3 clicks maximum. The introduction videos provide a good overview and make it really easy to get started right away. Within a few minutes I was able to upload my spreadsheet, choose the right data to chart, customized the output and shared it with the community.

I had a bit of a struggle to understand what it was that I registered for - was it a paid account with the 15 days trial or is there a free account? The free plan isn't indicated as such, it's just remarked in the claim "Share publicly for free".

If you need a quick way to communicate with your team members or embed charts in your website and don't have the demand for complete flexibility and more complex chart types, Swivel might be a good fit. If you need more customized and complex charts you might not get everything you need from it.

As a last word the application is really well executed visually and from a user experience point of view. If they can include more options regarding the output I can see it as a strong player in the online visualization game.
For the Purists The charts have a clean look and a decent color scheme. Decorations are nicely reduced, the only thing a bit unorganized is the mouse-over tooltip. The axes are nicely labeled and the title and the created / updated footer gives good context to the chart at hand.
For the Aestheticians The charts share a common look & feel and the user does not have many options for intervention. Charts can't really be matched to corporate design guidelines or other preliminary definitions.
Reviewer(s) Benjamin Wiederkehr
Date reviewed 3/17/2010

Swivel line chart with settings (click to enlarge).

line chart Yes   scatter plot Yes
area chart Yes   bubble graph No
bar chart Yes  
block histogram No   word tree No
stacked bar chart Yes   tag cloud No
stacked area chart Yes   phrase net No
tornado chart No   word cloud generator No
pie chart Yes  
donut chart No   network diagrams No
polar graph No   matrix chart No
candlestick plots No  
bullet graph No   world map No
  various map projections No
treemap No   map locations No
mosaic plot No   choropleth map No
heat matrix No   distorted map No
dashboard widgets No   other No

Line and bar charts with live data editing (click to enlarge).

Next week we will review IBM Many Eyes. Stay tuned and please let us know your interests and ideas in the comments below!

Benjamin Wiederkehr is founding partner of Interactive Things where he's responsible for everything User Experience Design and Data Visualization. He shares his passion for data visualization with the readers of Datavisualization.ch by documenting and discussing findings in this field.

Kim Rees is a partner at Periscopic, a socially-conscious Information Visualization firm specializing in helping nonprofit organizations and like-minded companies convey important messages and elevate public awareness.


Hi, first of all: great that you guys are reviewing these applications! I'm really looking forward to the next reviews.

My 2 cents: something that always catches my eye at Swivel is the color legend: it looks somewhat unstructured / unordered, and therefore a little hard to read.

Also, there are 29 colors in your screenshot. Tableau for example, doesn't allow you to encode to more than 20 colors because it becomes harder to distinguish individual colors (in the screenshot above, it's quite hard to distinguish the different shades of yellow, blue, etc.). In general I don't think the most effective color palette is used in Swivel...

Something you might also consider: Tableau Public uses a desktop client that only runs on Windows, while Swivel, like Many Eyes, is just used online only.

Lastly: I am wondering, since you guys are collecting some quantitative data about Swivel, Many Eyes and Tableau Public, are you going to present (some of) the results in an interactive visualization? *hint* ;)

Sat 10 Apr 2010 at 12:40 AM

Hi Kim, Benjamin, Andrew & gang. I really appreciate that effort. Often the data visualization blogging focuses on very innovative developments made by elite coders and designers. But the key issue in data viz is really adoption. Can interactive graphics be useful to a larger audience than quants, analysts and academics? Free online tools that non-coders can use to turn their data into visualization are an important part of the answer.

Swivel and Many-Eyes may be early entrants, and since then there has been many other tools, especially js libraries, but they haven't had a lot of competition as platforms. (Verifiable should warrant a review, though).
When I was using Swivel a lot, I felt limited by its simplicity, but I now see more as a feature. Swivel is the easiest way to get a interactive chart online. a copy/paste and two clicks, and that's done.

Sat 10 Apr 2010 at 8:54 AM


I started to put together some info on Information Aesthetics (People, Blog, Books, Design Patterns and Software) on Freebase.


I'm still playing around. The schemas I'm using are far from perfect (and don't match the review schema). Would be highly motivating, if some of you contribute to the Base ;-)

Mon 12 Apr 2010 at 9:23 PM

I summarized your comments on Kims 1st post in a debategraph (you'll find the link on the left).

Mon 12 Apr 2010 at 9:29 PM

Thanks for the detailed review! We really appreciate that you spent so much time taking an in-depth look at the product.

We're also are excited to hear from the readers who may comment on this post!

Tue 13 Apr 2010 at 5:47 AM

I agree that the legends are an area with much room for improvement. As for the color restriction I have doubts that a human can distinguish 20+ different colors – 7 seems an adequate number of colors to be used in one graph but as it is common to have more than 7 sets to compare the designer should consider changing the used visualization method.

Tue 13 Apr 2010 at 9:08 PM

@Benjamin: Good feedback! :) You can see that Protovis uses a similar 20-color palette as Tableau: http://code.google.com/p/protovis-js/wiki/PvColors . But the 20-color palette is actually a 10-color palette with the additional 10 colors being a lighter shade of the first 10 colors. So I guess you're right that 20+ different colors are hard to distinguish. Perhaps more precisely stated: 20+ distinct hues are hard to distinguish, so 10 hues with 10 saturated colors is OK. And you're also right that other visualization methods may be considered to improve the effectiveness of the visualiation.

Tue 13 Apr 2010 at 9:46 PM

Excellent... look forward to the next 2 parts....
PS: check out my blog for some other platforms to consider as a follow up.

Thu 22 Apr 2010 at 7:52 AM
Commenting has been temporarily disabled.