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Microsoft's New Data-Viz Tool Puts Excel Charts To Shame

SandDance is free-to-use software that will make you feel like a data science guru.

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All of us have experienced the horrors of the Excel graph. (A few of us, surely, are even responsible for bringing this misery onto others.) Enter Microsoft's new data-visualization tool, which will make you look downright impressive at your next board meeting.

Called SandDance, it’s a free-to-use website, produced by the Visualization and Interaction Team (VIBE) in Microsoft Research, and released through the company's experimental Garage initiative. You can also use it as part of Power BI, Microsoft’s business analytics platform. (Because data-viz for business analytics is a big business.)

SandDance can take any spreadsheet of data, and present it as a rearrangeable, resortable data set. Any visualization tool can do that, of course! But SandDance is beautifully presented, with the high contrast aesthetic and animated transitions that harken to the bespoke data-viz projects by independent studios, rather than the mass-produced charts of Excel.

It’s also designed for touchscreen use. That point is important, because it means that even though you might be using it on your laptop, all of the possible tweaks sit at the surface level of the interface, rather than buried inside submenus. Using one of the preloaded data sets—the people on board the Titanic—I was able to instantly change from a bar chart to a scatterplot, and cross-reference what I saw by class, gender, or ticket price. It's all surface-level, pretty data. But 15 minutes into my exploration, I found something that you might call real insight: I was looking at an age breakdown of every class in the ship, rendered across four bar charts. Then I filtered that information through who actually survived. By toggling back and forth quickly, I could see that first and second classes were relatively unfazed. The third class and crew plummeted. Much like you've heard, the poorest people on the Titanic suffered the worst fates. And if I'd spent longer in SandDance, maybe I could've found a way to capture that insight in a single chart, rather than the eight frames I was toggling between quickly.

I’m no data scientist, so more than once, I hit a dead end where I went from feeling like a genius to some random, button-mashing hack, totally ignorant as to where I went wrong. The clear charts would give way to nonsense—I'd have no idea what numbers were running along the Y axis, and the graphs just looked wonky, with nothing clear except for the fact that they depicted my complete lack of logic. (Luckily, there's a reset button for just this scenario.) But SandDance’s instant visual feedback makes the platform enticing. It feels more like a preconstructed interactive data viz that you’re exploring on your lunch break, rather than some data-viz tool where you are deciding how your information should look. And that makes all the difference.

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