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A dataset can hold a tremendous amount of information. It can, however, be difficult to discern any of this information by looking at its individual entries. Open source data visualization software allows data analysts, and other individuals, to illustrate and analyze specific information from large datasets for free.
Different types of information are best illustrated with different types of charts, graphs, or graphics. Simple examples of data visualization include line graphs and pie charts. Line graphs show trends in the change of numerical data over time, such as the fluctuation in a product's prices or sales numbers. Pie charts display concentrations of data categories — such as the percentage of voters that selected a particular candidate for office, or demographic information about those voters.
More sophisticated information requires more complex visualizations. Network analysis, a growing area in quantitative research, is one such method that requires advanced visualization software. This involves charting the connections between different data entries to discern information about complex relationships between data points. Creating a visual representation of such a network from a dataset requires software that can run the calculations necessary to automatically position nodes, which represent individual data entries, in a three-dimensional space to be connected with lines.
Companies and independent analysts can purchase proprietary software that can create both basic and advanced data visualizations. An alternative to paying for these programs is to use open source data visualization software. Programmers create open source software by publishing the source code to their programs on the Internet for anyone to download, view, and compile themselves. Since the source code is freely available on the Internet, the software is free for anyone to use. Open source visualization software can save companies and data analysts money, but may lack the more advanced features that proprietary software, which must be purchased, may include.
Open source data visualization software can also take the form of web services that use the content of a site as a dataset. These can create graphics, such as word clouds. These are collections of common words on the website — and the more frequently a particular word appears, the larger its size, relative to other words, will be.
The price of proprietary software can put open source data visualization products beyond the reach of many individuals, such as amateur bloggers or students. These people may benefit greatly, however, from the ability to integrate these kinds of graphics into their websites or research projects using open source data visualization software. Due to the open source nature of this software, any programmer can contribute new source code, to add new features and functionality, for anyone who chooses to use it.