Google is adding more user-friendly options to its Fusion Tables app to try to popularise the somewhat obscure art of data visualisation.
The search giant hosted a technology and journalism conference last week where it announced new features for Fusion Tables that give users more ways to explore and visualise large data sets.
One new feature provides a checklist from which users can select different subsets, or facets, of the data to see how they'll look when added in different combinations to a map or a chart. It has also added tabs that let users compare the different views they create to decide which is best.
Fusion Tables also has some new formats for displaying data, including a network graph for showing relationships in a social network, and a zoomable line chart.
The features have been added to the Experimental version of Fusion Tables.
Fusion Tables works with pretty much any data sets to which a user has read access. The visualisations can be embedded into a website, where they remain interactive.
"One of the big goals of Fusion Tables is to enable many people to work with databases," said Alon Halevy, Google's head of structured data research.
"Databases are known to be the hardest known software beasts ever created by man or woman. A lot of the people that have data and want to tell stories about their data, share it and visualise it, are people who don't have database expertise, or don't even have access to database expertise," he said.
Even with the new features, Fusion Tables isn't as intuitive as some other Google products, but it is one of the easier-to-use among the free multipurpose visualisation tools. Users don't need any coding expertise to use it, for example.
Google says millions of tables have been created using Fusion Tables.
"We're trying to create an ecosystem around structured data," said Halevy. "The web is so successful because there's an ecosystem that makes it easy to create data, it makes it easy to discover data, and therefore things happen." A similar ecosystem for the information now buried in databases that are difficult to access and interpret would "bring a lot of value from data that exists already," Halevy said.
Democratised data can have real effects, including opening up governments and alerting aid workers to unfolding disasters, Halevy and his engineering manager Sreeram Balakrishnan said.
But the Fusion Tables search feature that was also recently added does not yet return many results, despite Google's work to create an algorithm that can differentiate quality structured data from, for example, HTML tables used simply to format text.
There's still a way to go before the vast troves of information socked away in databases can be accessed and understood by an average user.
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