Keep Learning over Winter Break

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Finals week is almost over! Congratulations on making it through another semester (students and professors!).

Enjoy your much-deserved break, but don’t let your brain atrophy and résumé stagnate. Cruising Tumblr and Facebook can only get you so far – there are plenty of ways to improve your research skills and stimulate your critical thinking skills while browsing online. Here are a few of our favorites:



Access this learning website through your myAU portal, under the “Technology” tab. AU has paid the subscription for this fee-based service, so it’s completely free to members of the AU community. You can access thousands of videos covering hundreds of software programs. The videos are professional quality and take you step-by-step through either basic or advanced procedures in programs from Picasa to Python. By the time you complete a course, you’ll have a new resume bullet.

2. MIT OpenCourseWare


From the project’s own description: “The idea is simple: to publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone.” – Dick K.P. Yue, Professor, MIT School of Engineering. You can access the full course materials that MIT students pay big buck to take, totally free. Most classes include video lectures, syllabus, reading list, and lecture notes. Either fill in a gap in your knowledge or just pursue curiosity.

3. TED 


Many of you will have already heard of this site, for good reason. The “Technology, Entertainment, Design” series of conferences invites well-known and dynamic researchers to “give the presentation of their lifetimes”. The result is often a 20-minute mind-blowing video. It’s hard to go wrong picking a TED talk. There’s also a new portion of the site called TED-Ed, which are mini-lessons prepared by educators and animated by professional animators, complete with quizzes and further resources. It’s a great way to learn without feeling like you’re learning.

4. Information is Beautiful


This is David McCandless’s website, filled with great examples of creative ways to display data. In our world of academic research, we see far too many ineffective and boring graphs and charts. One way to make your paper stand out is with an eye-catching and intuitive data visualization. In addition to “Information is Beautiful,” check out these tutorials from UC Berkeley’s journalism school to learn more about creating unique and effective designs.

Have a great Winter Break, and stay posted for information about CTRL’s workshops and research seminars for Spring 2013


Data Visualize Your Life With

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I admit, this is probably not 100% related your research, but this is totally related to another great data visualization tool that is available on the web, especially if you are a social media junkie like me.  That is my self portrait on the left there.

Not really, of course.  But if you are regular on Twitter or Facebook (and these days, who isn’t?), there is a neat website that will allow you to take the information that you have on those social media sites and turn it into a wonderful piece of data visualization.  Two great things are associated with this: the website offers free service and you don’t have to hunt for data, because you already have it.

The website is called This is an online community for people who love data visualizaiton (like yourself) and offers great tips on how to make yours better, links to other blogs and resources on the web related to data vis, and also gives you the chance to show off your original graphics.  Just a heads up, this website isn’t totally for novice data visualizers.  Many of the showcase graphs were created by professionals, especially those who know how to code.  It’s a good idea to look through the gallery anyway to get a sense of how data visualization can be used, maybe even for your own research project.

But this post isn’t meant to discourage you!  As I mentioned before, you already have data that can use to create a cool graphic. also has a “Create” section where you can make graphics from templates provided by the website.   You can sign up for free with your Facebook or Twitter accounts.

After signing up with my Facebook account, I chose one of the Facebook graphic templates and created a graphic that expressed the data on my friends, photos, and other info.  For my example, I chose the Facebook Monster. I could tell how many of my friends are male, how many are female, and how many times, on average, I have friends in my photos with me.  (The answer is 3.4.) Below is a visual example of the number of friends I have on each continent. I wonder who that lone Australian is.

If you have a Facebook page that showcases a business or an organization you have, has great templates to express the data of those pages as well.  Below is an example from the website that shows the demographics of people who visit a Facebook page. has similar graphic templates for Twitter.  An interesting one is a graphic that analyzes hashtags.  When you use for Facebook or Twitter, make sure that your account settings will allow to access the information or else you won’t be able to see all analytic parts of the graphic. This website is especially interesting if you want to make a fun, easy, and quick showcase of your personal data.

If you decide to try it out, let us know what you think!

Three Easy Tricks You Probably Didn’t Know About Pie Charts in Excel

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You’ve probably used Excel a lot, especially when cleaning up your data and making little bar and pie charts here and there when you need to.  If you need a quick pie chart, and you don’t spend any time trying to make it look nice, you’ll probably end up with something like this:

HEY WAKE UP!  Don’t let that boring pie chart put you to sleep.  Here are three simple tricks to make it look much more interesting.  It’s as easy as pie. 

(Yes. I went there.)

Tip # 1. Give it a little dimension. 
Excel has six different pie graph options for you to choose from. Four are 2-D and two are 3-D.  There is nothing wrong with a 2-dimensional pie graph, especially if you have many categories that could get lost in a 3-dimensional graph.  Use good judgement when choosing which pie chart is right for your data. If you have fewer categories that are better represented in a 3-D pie graph, go for it.

Tip # 2. Rotate your pie so that the smaller categories are seen. 

For some reason, when you make a pie chart on Excel, Excel tends to stick the smaller categories toward the back and bring the big piece to the front.  I suppose Excel’s logic is that you would want to see the larger value up front.  But what if the smaller values are what you’re really trying to show?

This can be fixed.  Right-click the pie chart and choose “Format Data Series.”  Under “Series Options” in the “Angle of the First Slice” section, slide the rotation notch to the right (somewhere between 90 and 100 should be fine, but you can play around with this). Viola.  Your small value slices have gotten upgraded to front and center.

Tip # 3. Make one piece of the pie explode

Who doesn’t want to see a slice of pie explode?  Not only is this great clown comedy, it’s a good way make one category or value of your pie stand out from the rest.  Earlier when you chose the type of pie graph you wanted, you could choose one that already has all the slices exploded.  Here is how you can make just one slice explode:

When you click on the pie graph, you’ll see that little “handles” appear on the edges. When you click on just one slice of the pie, the same thing happens.  Drag that piece of the pie out…and bam. Pie slice explosion.

Next time you need to make a pie graph on Excel, consider some ways to  make it look more interesting.  Your audience will appreciate it.

By the way, that first pie graph shown above (the gray, bland one) is intended for giggles, but believe it or not, that is an actual color scheme by Excel.  Please, please, please, stay away from that option.  While you’re at it, stay away from single-color schemes, where pieces of the pie are different shades of green or orange, for example.  To make each of your pieces stand out, use different colors.  And stick with solid colors.  Patterns can get distracting.

Four (Free) Online GIS Programs

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Need a GIS program but don’t have access to ArcGIS for Desktop? Check out four GIS programs available online. You can be using mapping software within minutes!

Why GIS? A GIS (geographic information system) allows you to study relationships between different layers and detect causal relationships between different variables. Using a GIS, you can create dynamic maps that show change over time, and you can create predictive models. GIS has been used in many industries for decision-making and policy formulation. It has been prominent in the environmental and agricultural sector (how does climate change affect crops?), but has recently flourished in the business sector (i.e.: where to open a new bakery?) and is rapidly expanding into new sectors such as conflict management (i.e.: crisis mapping).

Google Earth

Google Earth maps the Earth by using superimposed images obtained from satellite imagery and aerial photography. You can explore layers created by other Google Earth users or create your own layers to display data and other information on the Google Earth maps. Using the place mark feature, you can pinpoint a location on the map and edit information about a specific location, even add an image or video to your place mark “bubble”.  Likewise, you can create polygon shapes, paths, and image overlays to represent areas on the map.  You can save your work as a .jpeg image or as a .kml or .kmz file (special file formats by Google Earth).  Use the history tool to go explore past satellite imagery available for a location, or create a tour of all your place marks while recording your voice.

Open Street Map

OSM creates and provides free geographic data and mapping to anyone around the globe. It’s the Wiki of maps. OSM was created to allow people around the world to share and create maps in creative, productive, or unexpected ways OSM includes more detailed maps than other sites, however, it does not offer the ability to analyze data. For example, you can find an address in a small town of Thailand and you can edit the map to add your favorite restaurant, but you cannot add a layer that shows robberies in that city (even if you have that layer saved somewhere).


GeoCommons is the public community of GeoIQ users who are building an open repository of data and maps for the world. The GeoIQ platform includes a large number of features that empower you to easily access, visualize and analyze your data for free.


Crowdmap is a tool that allows you to crowdsource information and see it on a map and timeline. It does not require software installation and allows you to visualize information on a map in a quick and easy way. Crowdmap works in three simple steps: 1) Collect information from cell phones, news and the web; 2) aggregate the information collected into a single platform; 3) visualize the information on a map and timeline. For example, Crowdmap is often used to monitor elections or for crisis mapping.

Which one do you prefer?

Zoom Into a New Way to Present Info with Prezi

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When it’s time  to make a presentation for class and you need to have visuals to support your ideas, you’re likely to turn to PowerPoint. Right? Of course, what else is out there?

There is another interesting option available called Prezi.  It’s a cloud-based presentation software for sharing ideas on a virtual canvas. It will allow you to command the transition of your information in a whole new way that you wouldn’t get from a usual PowerPoint presentation. (Plus it’s a good way to keep your audience awake!) Prezi is distinguished by its zooming user interface that allows users to zoom in and out of their presentation media.

Take a look at some example presentations on Prezi’s website. You’ll be blown away and wonder how you can make such a complicated-looking presentation, but really, it is very easy to get started and organize the hierarchy of your information.

Things to know before you get started: You can sign up for 100 MB for free, but for more, you’ll have to pay. (You can definitely get a lot done with the free option!).  You can upload the images and text that you will need for your presentation onto the Prezi canvas. Also, since this is a cloud-based software, you will need connection to the internet when you present this from your computer. If you’re working with a group, you can also invite them through Prezi to work with you.  You can learn more about how it’s done here.

Impress your friends with a Prezi presentation!

Fast Data Visualization with Wolfram Alpha Pro

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A while back, we introduced a really neat website called Wolfram Alpha, an answer engine developed by Wolfram Research. It’s an online service that answers factual queries directly by computing the answer from structured data. Wolfram Alpha was amazing before, but recently it just got better: now you can input numeric or tabular data right into the browser and Wolfram Alpha will instantly analyze it. It will handle not only pure numbers, but also dates, places, strings, and more.

This feature is part of Wolfram Alpha Pro. It’s Wolfram with many more options for data analysis and computational knowledge. The only thing is, you have to pay a monthly price to use this service. Of course this is not what anyone on a budget wants to hear, but the good news is that there is a special student rate available ($2.99/month).

So what can Wolfram Alpha Pro do? Here is an example given by the website that analyzes the relationship between GDP and homicide for African countries:

Scatter plot:

Histograms: Below is an example of a bivariate histogram (shows both variables) but Wolfram will also give you histograms on each variable.

Heat map of GDP:

Wolfram doesn’t stop there. Browse the examples  that the website gives to explore how you can get results from uploaded datasets. This website has been famously known for answering computational questions on the fly. This new feature provided by the Pro version will help bring about a new dimension to your data, especially if you want some quick data visualization.

Fall in love with SPSS again: Mapping in SPSS 20

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SPSS manages to keep their throne as the most widely-used statistical analysis software in social science. They have outdone themselves, yet again, with SPSS 20.

The Maps feature is at the forefront of the collection of new updates in this recent release. Now, you can incorporate geography into your quantitative research, in order to visualize geographical observations or trends.

This feature is contained in Graph > Graphboard Template Chooser. There are three types of map templates:

  1. Choropleth Maps, where you can use color gradation to reflect the value of statistic on a variable (mean, median, and sum).
  2. Mini Charts, displaying a chart for certain regions; each labeled with the respective location.
  3. Overlay Maps, combining two map files into one visualization; one as reference, another for data display.

You can work with the following data:

  1. Latitude and Longitude, in order to generate a reference map with geographical coordinates.
  2. Existing map files: ESRI shapefiles easily converted with the Map Conversion Utility
  3. Pre-installed maps in SMZ format, including the U.S. map with states and cities indicated

For additional map files: “Many of the templates in this product are based on publicly available data obtained from GeoCommons ( and the U.S. Census Bureau ( Another source for U.S. federal, state, and local geospatial data is the U.S. Geological Survey (”

There are various ways to customize your map to display the data as you desire, including color schemes (stylesheet) as well as Pie on a Map.

Pie on a Map

Reference Map with Latitude and Longitude

SPSS 20 is now available on all the computers in Hurst 202 and 203.


IBM. SPSS. Program documentation. Converting and Distributing Map Shapefiles. Vers. 20. IBM, 2011. Web. 14 Feb. 2012. <;.

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