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Software Review: Tableau as a Teaching Tool

Tableau is unique and a valuable teaching tool because it provides an easy interface for the creation of charts, graphs and even maps.  Students can explore data in sophisticated ways with only a short training session.  Even better, as students they can get free licenses for the software, allowing faculty to use it for classes without ensuing large financial commitments.

A map showing fatality and even types of different violent events in Africa

What sets Tableau apart from other data visualization or business intelligence software is its intuitive, user-friendly drag-and-drop interface. For more sophisticated applications this is supplemented by a variety of easy to understand menus. By using contextual menus and panels instead of typing in code, Tableau lowers the learning curve needed to create visualizations. For example, creating a line graph or a map is as easy as selecting the variables in question and selecting the appropriate type of visualization.

Classic tables like the one below are easy to construct and can also be augmented with color-coded hotspot analyses.

A highlight table showing the number of violent events happening in Egypt, Libya, South Sudan, and Sudan broken down by Country and Event Type

Tableau provides the opportunity to construct data visualizations that are more complex than those generated by most traditional statistical packages.  For example, the graphic below compares the number of conflicts over time for four North African countries in a fairly normal plot, but add an additional variable, the number of fatalities by varying line thickness.

A line graph showing the trend of the number of violent events in 4 African countries (Egypt, Libya, South Sudan, and Sudan) between 1997 and 2015. The thickness of the lines represent number of fatalities.

For classes working with data, Tableau presents a significant opportunity for instructors to integrate more data into the classroom, especially with students who might not have experience with more advanced statistical software. Making it easier for students to explore and understand data, as well as to ask their own questions through investigative learning, encourages them to gain a deeper appreciation for data as it relates to their discipline. In fact, as of the time of writing, Tableau is currently being successfully used in several of our classes at Grinnell College.

However, Tableau does have its drawbacks. In particular, visualizations created with Tableau are not as customizable as more powerful languages such as R or Javascript. In addition, Tableau is not created for data analysis.  It is a data visualization tool, not a statistical package. Another small downside is that data entered into Tableau must be formatted in a specific way.  While Tableau is able to do some data manipulation, spreadsheet programs like Excel are much easier for this. So, Tableau’s role in classrooms or in research might only be restricted to surface-level explorations of the data in question. Despite this limitation, Tableau remains a tool with great potential, especially in the possibilities it presents to the user in creating quick and easy visualizations.

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Visualizing the Production Function and Cost Curves

Single, static images of data trends aren’t the most effective way to communicate the ways the different elements of an equation or formula contribute to a trend.  This is especially true for introductory economics concepts such as cost curves or the production function. Dynamic, interactive visualizations that allow users to manipulate the variables contributing to a relationship which enables the audience to better understand how equations express trends.

Krit Petrachaianan ‘17 of DASIL programmed a visualization using R that illustrates cost curves and the production function, two core concepts of introductory economics.  DASIL’s visualization allows users to manipulate the different parts of the equations that define cost curves and the production function. For instance, users can manipulate the costs per input (denoted r and w) and the amount of a particular input (denoted K for capital and L for labor). Users can also define the productivity of the firm’s inputs.

Cost curves visualize the costs of producing different levels of output. The total cost of production for a business can be subdivided into fixed and variable costs.  Some costs, such as raw materials and production supplies, change proportionally as more or less of the good or service is produced and are known as variable costs.  Other costs, such as the annual rent or salary of workers, are independent of the level of goods or services a business produces and are known as fixed costs.

The production function shows the relationship between the output produced by a firm from a given amount of inputs (i.e. labor and capital). The productivity of inputs in producing output can vary in three ways: 1) with constant productivity, the additional output produced by a given amount of input is constant as more of the input is used, 2) with diminishing productivity, the additional output produced by a given amount of input declines as more of the input is used, and 3) with increasing productivity, the additional output produced by a given amount of input increases as more of the input is used.

Explore DASIL’s latest R visualization below, as well as in the Graphs section of the Data Visualizations page and in the Economics tab of the DASIL website.


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Visualizing Marriage and Social Inequality

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it’s a good time to take a look at data on marriage in the United States. It’s been a hot topic lately not just among demographers and sociologists, but also among economists and others who are worried about economic inequality. Although it’s now old news that marriage rates in the United States are declining, with people waiting until later to marry and an increasing number not marrying at all, the class differences that have appeared in marriage rates have not been as widely discussed. DASIL has created two visualizations that let you explore aspects of these changes from the 1970s to the present.


Less-educated Americans are now less likely to be married than more-educated Americans. The visualization above shows marital status by education and gender for Americans 1976 to present, based on data from the General Social Survey.

Americans who are not married tend to have lower incomes than those who are.  This visualization shows the median income of Americans age 18 and over by marital status, race, and gender, 1974 to present, based on data from the Current Population Survey.

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Visualizing the Budget of the United States

Each year, the President of the United States follows the State of the Union Address with the budget proposal. But what does the US budget look like?

The New York Times created a visualization of the 2012 budget that breaks down the spending by size and color. The larger the rectangle, the more money spent. Green symbolizes an increase in that budget area, and red shows a budget cut.

A similar visualization can be found for the 2014 budget at The Washington Post. Again, size is used to represent the amount spent, but their visualization also includes revenue information. The Washington Post also includes a breakdown of mandatory vs. discretionary spending.

Here at DASIL, we have created a visualization tracking budget spending over time, including estimates until 2019, using data from The White House. You can use our tool to compare outlays for various government agencies.
For example, let’s examine spending on the Department of Education and the Department of Homeland Security:Outlays by Agency: Department of Homeland Security vs. Department of Education

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