The potential of Google Visualizations

The Thinker by Rodin

Two years ago, I wrote about what I saw as the hidden power of Google Docs. Google Docs offers word processing, spreadsheets and presentation software on the web, similar to Microsoft’s Word, Excel and PowerPoint. In the last two years, Google Docs have not displaced the Microsoft Office suite, but its functionality has improved. Some businesses are actually paying Google to use Google Docs, noting that even though its license costs money, it is cheaper than Microsoft Office. Google Docs remains free for personal use, unlike the pricey Microsoft Office suite. Free is nice, particularly if you are wondering why you have to shell out hundreds of bucks per computer to run Microsoft Office. You also don’t need to worry about losing a Google Docs file, as it is stored in the massive Google “cloud” somewhere. You also do not have to worry about installing, upgrading or patching it either.

In truth, most of us use no more than twenty percent of the Microsoft Office suite anyhow, so it is unlikely that we would ever notice any missing functionality if we switched to Google Docs. We stay with Microsoft Office primarily because we are comfortable with it. Microsoft Office is arguably faster, since documents do not have to traverse the worldwide web in order to be stored.

The folks in Google’s labs have been busy creating and improving innovative products like Google Docs, Google Earth, Google Maps, Gmail and Google Analytics. I have recently been experimenting with yet another product Google has been fostering called Google Visualizations. Once again, I really like what I am seeing. I think this product has enormous potential. Unfortunately, at least the moment still requires a web developer in order to create useful visualizations.

Google Visualizations is about more easily creating web pages with useful and interactive data driven graphics. The premise behind it is that static graphics on a web page are so yesterday. Most graphs and charts rendered on the web are images. The images are generally created on the web server and embedded in a web page. Largely, you cannot interact with these graphics. To the extent that graphs and charts are animated on the web, it is because they are written using Adobe Flash technology, which is built into browsers. Although end users do not pay for the privilege of seeing fancy animated graphics (and animations), those who create these graphics arguably pay hefty fees to Adobe to license the technology.

To be clear, Google Visualizations is not an Adobe Flash (or for that matter Microsoft Silverlight) killer. These products have other uses besides rendering data in fancy formats. What Google Visualizations provides is a programmer friendlier and less proprietary way to display and manipulate analytic information on the web in ways that are more visually appealing and more interactive.

To get a sense of what can be done with Google Visualizations, spend a couple of minutes here. I think that you will agree that Google has come up with some clever ways of rendering data. While Google created the visualization platform, it has also levered communities of open source developers on the Internet who, true to form, are developing innovative visualizations that may surprise and amaze you.

Google Visualizations are helping us better see and easily interpret data hosted on the web. Data sources are voluminous on the web, but they are only useful to the extent that we humans can interpret, understand and draw inferences from the data. Some web sites have tried to be data friendly by allowing us to download their data as Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. Assuming we have fluency in Microsoft Excel we could then slice and dice the data gathered over the web, but only after significant pruning of the data to just that subset we are interested in. It is not very efficient.

A good example of a useful Google Visualization is its Gauge Visualization. The Gauge Visualization succeeds because we understand it at a glance. For example, if you are responsible for monitoring a network, a customized console application that reads information from various data sources and places all the information in one place where it is easy to see where the trouble spots are is very useful. Even with the coding required to make these Visualizations work, it is a relatively fast way of being able to render data, once you are used to using the Visualization API.

Google Visualizations harness the power of the non-proprietary Javascript engine in your browser to render very pretty graphics on the fly. It does this by providing its own Javascript libraries. A programmer still has to write the Javascript that renders the particular visualizations needed. Yet most Javascript programmers will find the interface straightforward. Google hides much of its complexity from the programmer.

The true innovation in Google Visualizations is not the code that renders the pretty visualizations, but figuring out a generic way to render rich tabular data using one format. Tabular data is nothing more than data expressed in columns and rows, like a spreadsheet. Put data in columns and rows in a smart way and it can be rendered in an infinite number of ways, from conventional HTML tables, to bar and pie charts and even to advanced charts like heat charts, and you have something very compelling. If data content providers can provide data in a Google Visualization data query format, the data can potentially be rendered, analyzed and interpreted in infinite numbers of ways.

Not coincidentally, when needed Google Visualizations ties closely to Google Docs. If you take the time to express your data in the spreadsheet in Google Docs, you can render it in all sorts of creative ways as a Google Visualization. Since no special software is needed to view the visualizations, and since a well-supported code base is rapidly developing behind the product, I believe you can expect a lot more general use of Google Visualizations in the months and years ahead. Your bank, for example, may provide bank balance charts by day for your accounts, which are rendered using Google Visualizations. Your stockbroker might provide graphs that let you look at your investments in detail with a few clicks of a mouse.

It is my hope that the government will provide its data in Google Visualization accessible formats. Unfortunately, right now government licensing of the Google Visualization API is murky, but it is actually something I am helping to rectify where I work. For example, if the Census Bureau provided census data services in a Google Visualization data table format, its data will be far more accessible and, just as importantly, usable.

In time, I suspect that the Javascript skills currently needed to render Google Visualizations will become less onerous, or perhaps go away altogether. If this happens you will be able to create and share Google Visualizations without being a programmer. Google is a smart company. I would be very surprised if they were not already working on a programmer-less interface to Google Visualizations.

I expect great things in the next decade with this technology. Time will tell if I am correct.