On Small Step for Social Data?

When swivel.com launched in 2007 I was excited: at last, a company set themselves to creating a user-friendly platform for exploring data. However, something disappointing happened: the core software of the website hasn’t evolved much. The problems I identified in an early blog post, such as not highlighting user-created charts and the limited customization of the visualizations have not been addressed. Growth of the user community has been modest, with apparently 14,287 users today. Recently the company has launched Swivel Business, which I explored after requesting an invitation. Sadly, this application works more like a web-based version of Excel, with less emphasis on visualization and data sharing – what made the original tool unique. In April the company announced they’ll be merging both tools into one website – let’s hope it captures the best parts of both.

IBM’s Many Eyes, a similar website, has been somewhat more successful. It boasts some 70,000 datasets and allows users to experiment with a variety of sophisticated visualizations. However the site’s navigation and interface seems a bit clunky, and seems to obscure the best quality data. The site also lacks the ability to easily download or extract data, or compare between datasets.

The newly-renamed Socrata.com stands to finally crack the difficult space of social data sharing and exploration tools. For one, the website has de-emphasized visualizations and focused on data access. Ironically, even in the data exploration business I think this is a good move. In the rapidly evolving world of visualizations, developers are working on a host of platforms and approaches. Google has purchased some outright (see Gapminder) and quickly rolled them out as gadgets. By avoiding the visualization fray, Socrata can focus on a robust and flexible platform for storing and sharing tabular data.

The tool allows users to upload datasets with basic metadata, download it in a host of formats (CSV, PDF, EXL, XML, JSON) and embed it in a webpage. The embeddable applet includes the all-important search and sort functions, required to explore any dataset extending beyond one or two screens deep. Here’s an example of the embeddable applet, using a dataset I analyzed for a previous post:

Detroit Housing Unit Permits

The system automatically recognizes several type so fields: text, number, money, checkbox, percent, and boolean (?). The site’s not perfect, but provides for the first time a robust, free platform for sharing tabular data. Although very new, you can already find Socrata widgets sharing White House salary data on WhiteHouse.Gov, or Oklahoma’s suburban growth. Only time will tell whether Socrata stands to become the go-to website for sharing data.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Rob,
    Aiden from Socrata here. We haven’t yet released this feature to the public, but I went ahead and made a visualization of your dataset: http://www.socrata.com/d/iz3q-t7b5

    You’ll notice you can click back to the source data and perform the usual analysis on it. Essentially the chart is just a “view” of your data… Just a peek at what’s coming soon to our users.

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