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Data crunching: from analyst to novice


Open data movement, the concept of making different types of data available to the public for free, is gaining ground on the net.

The data analysis frontier, once solely the data analysts/statisticians forte, is quietly becoming amenable to the lay audience as well. This edition of NetSpeak discusses the features of this fascinating on-line trend.

Till a few years ago, access to computers was limited to programmers/systems professionals and for any computational task we were referred to those experts. But, thanks to the awesome progress made by computing technology, now even a novice can accomplish most of those tasks without seeking anyone's help.

This autonomy gained by a layperson in the computing front, is slowly encircling other realms as well. The task of unpacking the facts behind a data set is traditionally done by data analysts/statisticians. However, the forces unleashed by the liberating spirit of the Net have brought in a sea change.

Several tools/services that enable even a layman process data and understand the patterns revealed by it with ease are in place.

The free on-line statistical computation service, VassarStats (http://faculty.vassar.edu/ lowry/VassarStats.

html), which lets you easily compute a variety of statistical parameters, is an excellent instance of such a product. To compute a statistic you need to merely enter the required data at the appropriate input boxes.

As mentioned in an earlier column, open data movement, the concept of making different types of data available to the public for free, is gaining ground on the Net. Of course, the mere availability of data has little relevance, unless we are able to discover the meaning that lies hidden inside it.

It is a well-recognised fact that one can comprehend data more easily if it is represented graphically. The popularity of graphic tools such as bar charts, pie diagrams and the like, attests to this view. The process of representing data graphically is generally known as data visualisation. From the traditional way of representing data using static graphic tools like bar chart, pie charts and the like the field of data visualisation has undergone drastic changes.

The time-series data visualisation tool, Gapminder (discussed in this column a few years ago — http://www.thehindu.com/2006/09/25/stories/20060925010 81500.htm), is an excellent example of the power of visualisation tools now available.

To get a feel of the (data visualization) strength of Gapminder — now owned by Google — just explore the public databases hosted at Google's public data page (http://www.google.com/publicdata/home). In this regard, you may also note that Gapminder (http://www.gapminder.org/) is now available as a desktop-software too. This means you can use this software even when you are off-line.

To make data visualisation more accessible to the layman, several free on-line data visualisation tools are being released.

Free data visualisation tools like ‘Many Eyes' (http://manyeyes.alphaworks.ibm. com/manyeyes/) and Google's Fusion Tables (http://tables.googlelabs.com/) are some services that could come in handy in your data crunching endeavours. The advantage of these tools is that they allow anyone to upload the data and produce different types of visualisations with a few of mouse clicks. For instance, ‘Many Eyes' can be used to generate visualisations such as stack graph, bar chart, pie chart, bubble graph, world map, scatter plot and so on. If you wish to analyse text data, the service also offers graphing tools such as word tree, word cloud and tag cloud. Data can be shown on maps too. Here, the location names — columns with place names — are translated into respective geographical locations automatically. Google's ‘Fusion Tables' is also a similar feature-packed tool that helps you easily visualise data and share it with others.

The visualisation type ‘Motion chart' (similar to gapminder chart) that lets you explore multiple indicators over time is a great feature of this service. Like ‘Google docs' and other similar Google applications, ‘Fusion Tables' too lets you share its content with your collaborators. Tableau Public (http://www.tableausoftware.com/public/) is yet another free visualisation tool worth a try. To implement visualisations with this service you need to download the free software available with it. However, once the visualisation is done, the data and the graphs become public — this means you cannot use it with private data with its free version.

Text to speech

We have come across several on-line tools meant for converting text to audio. For instance Natural Reader (http://www.naturalreaders. com/), the software that lets you convert text into audio is an example. Though a product like ‘Natural Reader' helps us convert text in English to its audio equivalent, such products fail when we need to hear the text (say in English) in some other language (say, in Hindi). Google, which has extended the power of its translation service, comes to our rescue. In addition to helping you translate the text in one language (say, English) to another (say, Hindi), you can obtain the audio version of the translated content too. For this, access the service (http://translate.google.com/), paste the text, select the languages and click on the ‘submit' button. So, the next time when you plan to travel to a place where you are not familiar with the language, just type a few essential sentences, get it translated, listen to the audio, speak like a native and make your visit hassle free

Facebook data backup

Social media services like Facebook and Twitter are becoming an integral part of our daily life. Many netizens generate tonnes of data on these networks. But if something happens to one's account — for instance, accidental deletion of a few messages — there is no way to recover it. This needs a backup tool that can help us back up our social media content.

If you are a Facebook user, the Firefox extension ArchiveFacebook (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/ firefox/addon/13993/) could serve this need. Once installed, ArchiveFacebook will place a menu option ‘ArchiveFB' in the browser's menu bar. To generate a backup of your account just select the option ‘Archive' from it and the extension will build a backup on your local storage.

J. MURALI

He can be contacted at: jmurali@gmail.com

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