Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Sparklines in Excel

You could be forgiven for thinking that a book entitled "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information" promises little in the way of entertainment if you're not familiar with Professor Edward Tufte's groundbreaking work in information design. Nothing could be further from the truth, though: this and all of Professor Tufte's books are classic studies in the history and principles of data presentation, the sort of books that reward the patience and attention of the layman just as much as the professional.

One of the most interesting concepts presented by Professor Tufte is that of sparklines; small, data-rich graphs displayed inline and in the context of documents and information graphics, providing a quick but detailed overview of trends and comparisons in data. A more complete explanation and some examples are presented on his website.

The concept has been around for some years by now, and you see sparklines popping up in all sorts of information displays recently, but support in software applications has been patchy, at best, meaning that it's relatively troublesome to create sparklines for your own data.

The best solution up to now, for my money, has been SparkMaker from the German firm Bissantz. This is an Excel add-in and it works beautifully, but is relatively expensive and suffers from the important limitation that, as a third-party add-in, it's not standard, so sharing sparklined files or working on multiple computers causes problems.

Microsoft have seen the light, however: Excel 2010 is going to offer native support for sparklines, which has to be the best improvement in some years to the unfairly neglected charting functionality. As far as I'm concerned, if the Microsoft implementation works well then it's reason enough on its own to upgrade. I hope that it's supported by the SQL 2008 R2 Reporting Services charting controls, too - imagine the level of detail you can add to performance reports if that's the case...

Labels: , , ,