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You have no doubt seen a Tableau chart before. They tend to be sleek, interactive, and intuitive. And they have already appeared in the Wall Street Journal, CNN Money, and CBS Sports among other places. The software is loved by many and quickly becoming the industry standard for those who DON'T necessarily consider themselves to be analysts.

And it just became much easier for the non-analyst set to create excellent interactive charts with the recent release of Tableau Public, a new tool that puts the power of Tableau into the hands of everyone. This free version of Tableau was released earlier this year to much fanfare. We have sliced and diced all its details below, so please have a read.

As you might already know, this is our final review of the big three of free, online social visualization software approaches: Swivel, IBM Many Eyes, and now Tableau Public.

We will wrap up with final thoughts next week with a benchmark that would make Tufte proud. Be sure to check back for an interesting look at all three tools, pitted side by side, embedded in this blog, so you can interact with each and make your own judgments.

 
CRITERIA
Cost Free
Free Version available Yes
Ease of Use Easy
Embeddable (into a web page) Yes
Shareable Yes
Comments / Discussion No
Private workgroup No
Plugin Required JavaScript/AJAX
Software Required Tableau Public Software (free) or Tableau Desktop
Export Formats CSV, PNG, PDF
Data Storage 50 Mb
Maturity (age of software) < 1 year (although Tableau software is 5 years old)
Customer Service None provided, but Tableau employees are very active on Twitter, LinkedIn, FB, and their forums.
Data Import Formats:
Oracle No
SQL Server No
Sybase No
DB2 No
PostgreSQL No
mySQL No
Excel Yes
Text Yes
other If you purchase their Desktop or Desktop Pro software, you will be able to use many more data sources such as mySQL, SQL Server, PostgreSQL, DB2, Teradata, Oracle, etc.
Reviewer(s) Kim Rees
Date reviewed 4/28/2010

Other Features
Ability to make rich dashboards for sharing. Interactive features are very robust. Community can filter the data you present, highlight it, and sort the data in various ways. Community can also download data and export any view they create.

Pros
- Extremely robust software that is rock solid. It's now on version 5.1.
- Very easy to use. Simple drag and drop interface.
- Ability to add subtotals, totals, and other calculations.
- Can have multiple worksheets in a file.
- Dashboards with a flexible worksheet layout.
- Easy to customize.

Cons
- All data becomes public.
- There is no option for private groups.
- Can only save to the web (cannot save a working copy locally).
- Must use stand alone software that is only PC compatible (for creation, not for viewing).
- No text analysis.
- Mapping is limited compared to other tools.

Review
I have been using Tableau Desktop for over two years and find it to be an indispensible tool. Tableau Public is a great option for students, casual users, or those who simply don't have the budget for the desktop version of the tool. It essentially allows you to use the desktop tool with a few limitations. If you can live within those limitations, then Tableau Public will be heaven to you.

Using Tableau is extremely easy. Simply choose your data source and it will show you the available fields, categorized according to their type. Choose the variables that are important to you - say, X, Y, and Z - then choose "Show Me." Tableau will make the most appropriate chart for the data you provided. It sometimes does some funny things here, but generally speaking, it's pretty smart about suggesting the best visualization. From here you can easily add and remove data points, choose different charts, customize the appearance, and add filters and legends.

You can also add multiple worksheets to create different charts from the same data. Adding a dashboard to layout your different worksheets is simple too.

When you're happy with your visualization, simply upload to the Tableau Public site with the click of a button. It's just that easy. Share the link with your friends and colleagues or publish to your own site. Once it's on the site your community can view and interact with your visualization. They can filter, drill down, and zoom in among other things.

I will note that people tend to miss the buttons at the bottom of each visualization. These are GREAT little nuggets of utility. Users can select some data in the chart they're looking at. Then they can view the actual underlying data in a table. They can also download the data (CSV) or export a PNG or PDF. It can be shared on websites and blogs. There are many incredible ways to share and use the information provided in a Tableau Public visualization.

Tableau states that your workbooks will become "public," however, so far it appears that they only display their featured workbooks in a gallery. You will actually have to share your URL with folks if you want them to find your work. Unfortunately, there is no public gallery as there is with Swivel and Many Eyes. My guess is that Tableau wants to have curatorial control over what is displayed.

I think the biggest drawback is that the software is not Mac compatible. Tableau has primarily been used as a business analytics tool, but it is now being used by journalists, students, and designers. It needs to extend beyond its boundaries of the PC world.

In my opinion, one of the greatest features is something quite simple: a back button. Whatever you do, you can always back button your way back out of trouble.

For the Purists
Okay, so Tableau allows you to make proportional pie charts and place them in a thematic map. What's wrong with that? Well, that is just wrong. Actually, Tableau Public is a purists dream. Tableau does much of the work for you, so it's hard to get into too much trouble.

You know it is purist gold if formalist Robert Kosara and pedant Stephen Few have declared themselves as fans.

For the Aestheticians
Font, chart, and shading colors are fully customizable. (However, font face customization will be lost once published online.) While you can do some great charting with Tableau Public, there are no progressive charts available such as stream graphs or treemaps.

Generally speaking, Tableau charts are very nice looking. They are not Nicholas Felton pretty or Density Design fancy, but hey, it is free and you do not have to do much work.

Furthermore, if you are into information storytelling like we are, you can use Tableau Public as a starting point to explore your data to find relationships and relevant information from your data. So even if you do not publish your viz, it's a nice tool for gaining insight.

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Dashboard with multiple worksheets (click to enlarge).


SUPPORTED CHARTS:
line chart Yes   scatter plot Yes
area chart No   bubble graph Yes
bar chart Yes  
block histogram Yes   word tree No
stacked bar chart Yes   tag cloud No
stacked area chart No   phrase net No
tornado chart No   word cloud generator No
pie chart Yes  
donut chart No   network diagrams No
polar graph No   matrix chart Yes
candlestick plots No  
bullet graph Yes   world map Yes
  various map projections No
treemap No   map locations Yes
mosaic plot No   choropleth map No (only through built-in US Census layers)
heat matrix Yes   distorted map No
 
dashboard widgets No   other dual axis line chart, crosstab, Gantt


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Tableau Public Gallery / Data Highlighting on Dashboard (click to enlarge).

Be sure to check back next week when we'll culminate these three reviews with a fascinating benchmark. Stay tuned and please let us know your interests and ideas in the comments below!

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.

11 COMMENTS

A good summary, thanks! I'm looking forward to the comparison. Not so much to see which one 'wins', but to understand which tool excels (bad choice of word?) for which tasks...

Wed 02 Jun 2010 at 12:16 AM

Nice review! I also really like Tableau Public!

Wed 02 Jun 2010 at 1:16 AM

What's the source of the Svalbard picture above?

Wed 02 Jun 2010 at 2:02 AM

Great review! My company is a VAR for Tableau in the UK and we are using Tableau public to get users to interact with their data. Good review but I have to take issue with - it isn't Mac compatible. Parallels is a great piece of VM software which runs Tableau beautifully on a Mac. A small extra cost sure, but for those of us Mac users, well worth it!

Wed 02 Jun 2010 at 4:10 AM
Jacqui Taylor

Great review! My company is a VAR for Tableau in the UK and we are using Tableau public to get users to interact with their data. Good review but I have to take issue with - it isn't Mac compatible. Parallels is a great piece of VM software which runs Tableau beautifully on a Mac. A small extra cost sure, but for those of us Mac users, well worth it!

Wed 02 Jun 2010 at 4:10 AM
Jacqui Taylor

Thanks for the great comments, everyone!

Dario, the map itself is what comes packaged with Tableau. The paths were created using data I had for polar bear GPS tracking. I simply visualized the data differently for each view to highlight different things like furthest distance, season, year, etc.

Jacqui, thanks for your input. Yes, one can use Parallels or similar software to make Tableau run on Macs. However, I think the lack of native support for Mac shows that Tableau's focus is only in the PC market. I know many designers who would love to use Tableau, but don't want to run extra software in order to do so.

Wed 02 Jun 2010 at 4:24 AM

Thanks for the review, Kim.
I'd like to add a few things in the pro and cons columns though.
Pro: tableau public works on every device of this century. every post-IE6 browser, iphones, ipads, and android phones run tableau public well.
There's extensive, free documentation & training available for Tableau.
being really an offline product, the user interface is very powerful.
Con, I would dispute that TP is easy to use. I agree it's easy to get some results quickly but to become proficient demands dedication.
Also, probably due to the success of TP servers are being less responsive now and delays are to be expected when interacting with the viz. That can become a problem if one page has many embedded TP viz.

Wed 02 Jun 2010 at 10:30 PM

Hi Jerome. Thanks for your feedback.

Just to be clear, there are two parts to Tableau Public:
1) the desktop software used to author content
2) the online publishing piece

While #2 works on all devices (I presume, but have not tested), #1, the authoring environment, does not. In order to author content, you need to run it on a PC or something that will run Windows software.

I think it can be a little confusing for people who are familiar with the Many Eyes or Swivel model, where you actually author your visualizations online. Tableau Public doesn't use that model, which I like, but it does have its limitations.

Thu 03 Jun 2010 at 4:31 AM

Has the benchmark post been published. I like to see how the three tools stack up against each other,

Thu 17 Jun 2010 at 10:23 AM
David

Hi David,

Sorry, the benchmark post has not gone live yet. I hope to have it online by early next week.

I can tell you from where it currently stands, that one tool blows the other two away..... take a guess. :)

Fri 18 Jun 2010 at 6:48 AM

I’m having a small issue I can't get my reader to pickup your feed, I’m using google reader by the way.

Wed 17 Nov 2010 at 7:56 AM
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