Open-Source Data Visualization Tools versus Traditional Data Visualization Tools

Open-Source Data Visualization Tools versus Traditional Data Visualization Tools

Industry-leading modern BI data visualization tools such as Tableau, Qlikview, and Microsoft’s Power BI offer an excellent platform for businesses to visualize their data, but in terms of functionality, licensing costs, and overall fit, sometimes open-source solutions can meet the business needs more closely. Open-source data visualization solutions are typically based upon the JavaScript programming language libraries such as D3.js, Google Charts, Chartist, Chart.js, and more. The main advantages in using open-source data visualization tools are customization and the low cost of scaling to very large audiences. We’ll explore some of the factors that may structure the decision to go with an open-source visualization tool.

Ad Hoc Reporting

One frequently referenced advantage for modern BI data visualization tools is “ad-hoc reporting” capabilities (Figure 1 and Figure 2 illustrate sample output). This means any end user, even one with minimal technical skills, is able to quickly create new reports on-the-fly without the need of a developer or deep technical resource. End users can explore their own data and quickly iterate through prototypes which also frees up IT resources to focus on other initiatives.

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Figure 1: Qlikview Dashboard: Qlikview provides high customization and a high degree of flexibility, but may be difficult for some users to develop on and provides a very “stock” look.

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Figure 2: Tableau Dashboard: Tableau prides itself on its ease-of-use, which allows anyone to be able to develop using it. Tableau is generally thought of as one of the best looking industry leading data visualization tools.

Open-source data visualization solutions do not offer robust ad-hoc reporting, and most end users will not have the programming background necessary to edit and create their own reports. Although this sounds like a negative, many companies simply do not need ad-hoc reporting (and therefore should not need to pay for it); such as, a company that frequently uses a set of standardized metrics in report. In this case, a developer would create visualizations with these metrics and users would view these reports without being able to change calculations or structures. What open-source data visualization tools lack in user configurability make up for in ability for the developer to customize output.

Customization

With an open-source solution, anything is possible (Figure 3 illustrates the output of a custom solution.) If someone on the team has a great way to analyze a specific set of data that doesn’t fit into a traditional chart, you can simply design your own chart (or tweak it) and have the developer create it. As time passes, we are seeing some modern BI platforms integrating directly with JavaScript to allow more customization options. We are expecting to see more of this in the future.

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Figure 3: Custom dashboard: Custom dashboards can provide ultimate flexibility, but a highly specific skillset is needed to develop and edit them.

Not only are the chart elements customizable, but so is the entire solution. With modern BI data visualization tools, regardless of the color scheme, fonts, or any of the other available customizations, the end product still looks and feels like all of the other products created using the tool. When using an open-source solution, a skilled developer can make something which looks stylish and new for a technology company, create a simple no-frills solution for a finance firm, or anything in between. With open-source solutions, the customization options are endless.

Cost

The can be a drastic cost difference between modern BI platforms and open-source data visualization solutions. When implementing a solution using a modern BI platform, a major upfront cost is typically incurred for licensing, although we see this trend changing in today’s “cloud-based” pricing models. Additionally, training and support contracts may increase the cost of a BI solution. In comparison, an open-source solution has no licensing costs, but does have development costs that are not seen with a modern BI platform. The staggered cost, vs. upfront, of an open-source solution could help a high-quality data visualization become a reality.

Skillset/Support

However, there are negatives to custom JavaScript reporting. The primary negative is that a person with the required skillset is often not available in-house and will need to be hired onto the team. In addition, the required skillset is currently highly in demand, which may lead to a long search time to find the correct candidate. Additionally, open-source solutions usually don’t come with a warranty or support which could pose a risk for some users. In comparison, most industry leading tools can be easily used by most analysts, even ones with minimal technical knowledge.

Summary

There are two scenarios in which it may make sense to bring in an open-source solution:

  • Your organization has access to technical resources to implement such a solution; don’t need ad hoc reporting; do not want to (or cannot) incur the high up-front cost of packaged BI solution; and may desire a high degree of customizations to your reporting.

Or

  • Your organization already has an ad hoc solution but need more customization in some of your reporting, don’t need this customized reporting to be ad hoc, and have access to technical resources to implement such solutions.

Our Deep technologists have implemented both kinds of visualization solutions and can help with the decision making and implementation process of either approach. Schedule a meeting to talk with our experts.

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