Cool Toys Pic of the Day – Gephi & NodeXL

Gephi:
http://gephi.org/

In their words.
“Gephi is an interactive visualization and exploration platform for all kinds of networks and complex systems, dynamic and hierarchical graphs. Runs on Windows, Linux and Mac OS X. Gephi is open-source and free.”

NodeXL:
http://nodexl.codeplex.com/

In their words:
“NodeXL is a free, open-source template for Microsoft® Excel® 2007 and 2010 that makes it easy to explore network graphs. With NodeXL, you can enter a network edge list in a worksheet, click a button and see your graph, all in the familiar environment of the Excel window.”

I really have NO business saying anything at all about data or network visualization tools. I like them, a LOT, but I don’t use them enough to be able to say anything intelligent about them. So why am I doing this?

Network visualization was not a competency I was exposed to in grad school. I wish I had been, but the idea hadn’t quite reached critical mass at the time I was in grad school. Oh, sure, folk had drawn graphs, by hand, but the first proper software for doing this wasn’t released to the public until almost a decade after I left grad school, at least according to the best history I’ve found on the subject.

Freeman, Linton C. Visualizing Social Networks. Journal of Social Structure 2000 1(1).
http://www.cmu.edu/joss/content/articles/volume1/Freeman.html

While I’m very awkward with network visualization tools myself, I know folk who are really good with them, and have even coauthored articles with them. You see, I do generate data that is analysed with these tools, and wish I could do the analysis myself. Thus, why this post.

Data visualization and network visualization are rapidly becoming core competencies for professionals in many fields, including mine. Or should I say “especially mine”? Anyway, I’ve stumbled around in various workshops and MOOCs and seminars trying to familiarize myself with all this. I’ve learned a bit about terminology (nodes, edges, clusters, weight, centrality, betweenness, etc). I’ve heard about the Fruchertman-Reingold layout often enough that I ought to be able to spell it without looking it up (I’m getting closer!). I’ve learned that visualizations of any sort have a certain art to the process in addition to the science, and that designing effective visualizations takes a variety of skills that are often not co-located in the same individual. I think I have many of the skills. But I’m still struggling with the tools.

NodeXL and Gephi are the two tools that every one doing this talks about. The two tools that you can’t discuss this without mentioning. NodeXL is a huge favorite, easier to learn, fewer barriers to entry, more accessible. Unfortunately, it is not platform independent, and requires Microsoft Office. There are people who don’t like either of those. Gephi runs on most platforms (yay!!), and better yet, works without requiring commercial software packages. Both have advantages, both have disadvantages. I don’t know either of them well enough to have a bias, or to make a recommendation. But I can safely say that if you don’t know about these, you should.

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