Visualizing Library Data in Socrata and Tableau

I decided it was time to experiment with Tableau again, and what better way to practice than using data from my local public library system, Montgomery County Public Libraries?  Locating MCPL data was almost as fun as using Tableau, since I was able to learn about and experiment with another data sharing and visualization tool called Socrata.

Socrata is a cloud-based platform that government organizations can use to host and share public data sets.  Montgomery County uses Socrata to power dataMontgomery, where I found a data set called Gov Stat MCPL Spreadsheet, listing Montgomery County Public Library performance measures.  The Socrata platform offers tools for filtering, sorting, visualizing, and exporting data sets, so I was able to filter and visualize the data in charts (like actual and projected numbers of “attendance of library programs” by fiscal year, displayed in a line graph).

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Data visualization in Socrata (actual and projected numbers of “attendance of library programs” by fiscal year).

I was also able to export the full data set to a CSV file in Socrata, which I then saved to Excel and uploaded to Tableau to practice creating a dashboard.  In my first Tableau viz I used the Story format (basically, a slide show of graphs and charts).  For my second viz, I decided to try the Dashboard format, where I can organize multiple charts on a single screen.  I created four charts but was only able to fit two of the charts comfortably on the dashboard screen (“Actual and Projected Attendance” and “Use of Library Services and Website”).  Here’s the completed viz, Service Usage and Attendance at Montgomery County Public Libraries (MCPL).

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My second Tableau viz.

I love experimenting with Tableau, but the best part of this exercise was learning about the data sharing and visualization capabilities of Socrata.  A quick Google search for “Socrata government data” shows that many local and state governments use Socrata to share data sets with the public (for example, Baltimore and Hawaii).  Federal government institutions also use Socrata to share data sets, like the open data catalog for the Institute of Museum and Library Services or NASA’s open data portal.  It’s a promising sign that both local and federal governments are making it a priority to openly share data with researchers and the general public, so anyone can use the data in new and creative ways.

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Learning Tableau

Creating interactive visualizations of data to tell a story is a great skill to have, but what if you don’t have programming skills?  I fall in the non-programmer boat (although hopefully I can fix that knowledge gap this year by learning R), but fortunately there are a ton of free online visualization tools, many of which don’t require programming knowledge.  Tableau is one option for creating free or low-cost interactive visualizations of large data sets using a drag-and-drop interface.

What is Tableau?

Tableau is data visualization software that includes both subscription and free versions.  The free version of the software is called Tableau Public.  Through Tableau Public, users can download the Tableau Desktop Public Edition app, upload and clean data, create visualizations, and then save and store visualizations (called “vizzes”) to your Tableau Public Profile.  You get 10GB of space in your Public Profile, and vizzes can be shared and embedded on websites and blogs.

How Can Libraries Use Tableau?

A quick search of Tableau Public shows some academic libraries using Tableau to create dashboards of library usage statistics (see Library Assessment for UMass Amherst Libraries or LibraryViz@OSU for Ohio State University Libraries).  Public libraries (like Brooklyn Public Libraries) may use a subscription version of the tool for indepth usage analytics and decision making.

Getting Started

For my first Tableau visualization, I decided to use a relatively large data set downloaded from PillBox.  PillBox is a database from the National Library of Medicine and can be used to identify unknown pills and capsules by visual indicators like color, shape, and size.  I wanted to explore the pill shapes, colors, and distributors for pills containing the active ingredient Acetaminophen.

My first (rather rough) attempt at a Tableau visualization can be found here.

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Visit the full visualization.

I mostly just figured out how to use the interface through trial and error and Googling any questions I had about the tool (there’s a large and active user base for the software, thankfully).  The Tableau website also offers some basic tutorial videos.

A few random thoughts:

  • I had trouble using Tableau Desktop Public Edition app on my Dell, since the Dell Backup and Recovery program interfered with the app.  I had to uninstall Dell Backup and Recovery to get Tableau to work.
  • Now that Google has gotten in the data visualization game with Google Data Studio, Tableau better up it’s game.  Here’s a comparison of Google Data Studio and Tableau I found interesting.