We love technology as a means to reveal and convey insights quickly and conveniently, rather than as an end. That said, software is a key enabler to quickly boil down what data is about. It takes savvy and taste for experimentation to put software to work without becoming slave to it.
We thus tend to gravitate towards software that has been adopted by a critical mass of developers or users, with good documentation and a vibrant community backing it. This keeps us away from the very bleeding edge which in our opinion belongs in the lab rather than in production environments. Such successful products in turn tend to remain viable options over the long run.
We use a mix of open source and commercial software based on the merits of each package rather than because of any ideological preference. In other words, we go with what works!
Our Core Visualization Toolbox
For most corporate private intranet/extranet use cases, we mostly use:
- Microsoft Power BI, which had a lackluster start but then became one of the best business intelligence solutions thanks to its integration of data wrangling, data modeling, and visualization. While it’s not as fancy as Tableau for some of the most advanced customized visualizations, it’s more versatile and scalable. Power BI can also run R and Python code and visualizations.
- Mapbox and ARCGIS, for advanced data-driven maps in Power BI.
- Microsoft Excel, the tried-and-true data stalwart for organizations of all types and sizes. We focus on “modern Excel”, which means Power Query (Get & Transform in Excel 2016) and Power Pivot, which is vastly more efficient and scalable than the Vlookups and VBA macros of old.
To build public-facing websites we use:
- Power BI or Tableau Public web sharing.
- Google Charts includes interesting options such as motion charts derived from Hans Rosling’s amazing work at GapMinder. DataWrapper is an open source alternative among other interactive charting libraries that has been adopted by a number of news orgs.
- WordPress has not just become an almost ubiquitous content management system, its handling of media files has also blossomed over the past few years.
- Bootstrap gives the ability to create responsive websites without reinventing the wheel. Speaking of responsive designs, here are the trade-offs and options to deliver visual data while remaining mobile-friendly.
This list is far from exhaustive as we monitor and try new technologies all the time, including by keeping tabs on open sources contributions from news organizations.
Playing Nice with Ecommerce Platforms & Digital Marketing Tools
Our operational experience with software used for publishing also goes beyond front-end concerns and includes the following back-end functions:
- Intranets – e.g. SharePoint, Teams, Slack
- Payment/subscription management – e.g. Recurly, Authorize.net
- Customer support/success – e.g. Intercom, Desk.com
- Analytics – e.g. Google Analytics, Mixpanel, Segment
- Testing – e.g. Optimizely, Visual Web Optimizer
- CRM – e.g. Salesforce.com, Dynamics 365
- Ad servers – e.g. DFP
Thanks to this very hands-on track record operating our own online publications, we can tackle or be part of ambitious data-focused product launches that seek to generate revenue through a large range of business models.
In the end, functional requirements should lead discussions rather than software preferences, but in our experience online projects best work when they are informed by the pros and cons of each available technical approach.