We all know that learning new software can be a real burden – it’s time consuming, frustrating, confusing and many times unsuccessful. With this blog post, it’s our hope that you can save time and preserve your mental health by getting a quick overview of the ins and outs of Tableau. To sign up for their free 14-day trial, visit this link.
“Tableau’s versatility is both its best and worst feature, being that it’s confusing to learn at first
but with time it becomes an efficient and advanced tool for data visualization.”
Tableau is a diverse software package with the ability to perform a multitude of visualization and analytic tasks, however, when it comes to their specific mapping element, it lacks in clarity and stands apart in its appearance when compared to other geographic information systems (GIS). In this post, I describe the pros and cons of adding a simple shapefile layer to Tableau and stylizing it. There are certain aspects where mapping with Tableau is straight-forward and efficient, and there are other times when it is unclear.
Although Tableau is a business GIS and analytic software package, one of its primary strengths is data visualization. Adding spatial data is straightforward, but once it is added, it is not clear how to view it. In this short video, you can see how to add a shapefile to Tableau, how to view it and then how to symbolize it with different colors and details.
Tableau differs from other GIS software in that you must drag each attribute individually onto the map in order to add it. To create color ramps, you simply drag the attribute you want the progression for into the color section of “Marks”, and it is created. However, Tableau’s advanced options are not as robust as other mapping software, for example, you cannot change each stop value in a progression or the color of each stop.
Pros – Visualizing, Grouping and Presenting Data
One benefit of mapping with Tableau is the pre-loaded map layers, which include state-level census data, such as average household income, and demography. This gives users the ability to quickly and easily add comparative datasets, which are useful in data visualization. Check out the second graphic here to see the various pre-loaded map and data layers.
Another benefit of mapping with Tableau is grouping. You can group data with different selection tools, then easily visualize it or create a new set/group from it. Grouping means that a new “Dimension” is created, so it is like adding a new attribute to your spatial layer. Creating a new set is entirely different than dimensions as it allows you to add this new set to a sheet. You can also select multiple features and choose to either “Keep” or “Exclude” them, meaning only show (Keep) the select features or remove (Exclude) them from the map.
One last strength of Tableau I would like to emphasize is presentation mode, which gives you the ability to display maps and even graphs and tables created from your spatial data. Not only can you present your maps like a PowerPoint, you can also display mapping data in various formats, translating it into graphs and/or tables. In presentation mode, you are able to view each map, graph or table in slide by slide succession. Tableau also has a plethora of useful training videos on its website, one of which explains the basics of polygon mapping and data visualization.
Cons – a Business GIS With Mapping as a Secondary Component
Moving on to the less appealing side of Tableau, attributes are split up into “Dimensions” and “Measures” which is rather confusing. Dimensions are fields that cannot be aggregated, whereas Measures can be aggregated or used for different operations. The divide between Dimensions and Measures may be unclear for a normal GIS user, in addition Tableau’s user interface is different from what you might see in ArcGIS or Quantum GIS. If you refer to the video at the beginning of this post, you can see that the interface is a bit overcomplicated. Adding additional mapping data, such as shapefiles, JSONs and KMLs, is also not intuitive, as you can only have one data source for the project. When you do decide to load more GIS data, it appears in the data tab at the top left and must then be added separately to the sheet.
Another aspect that is counter-intuitive with Tableau is map layers. Compared to other GIS systems where map layers are the spatial layers (shapefiles, GeoTIFFs, etc.) you add yourself, map layers in Tableau are the pre-loaded datasets (i.e. the basemaps and census data). It would be more efficient to have these pre-loaded map layers on the initial screen when you navigate to your sheet, since they are important components to add early in the map-making process. As a side note, it is strange that there is no source listed for the census data as well as no metadata. Last, there is no easy way to simply turn an imported spatial layer on and off to visualize the data and layers below.
Perhaps the largest fault with Tableau is the user interface as it is difficult to find basic mapping tools such as select and pan. To find these tools, you must expand a small arrow within the map itself, which is not very intuitive compared to other GIS systems. Another important downfall is that point, line and polygon shapefiles are all supported separately, so you cannot have a map with mixed geometries.
Even with the cons stated above, Tableau is an enormously useful business GIS given how easy it makes data visualization. Everything in Tableau is integrated, allowing users to create stories, graphs, tables and maps, and then feature them in its presentation view. This mode is also highly organized as you can easily navigate between your stories, sheets and other views with the click of a button. If Tableau wants to attract more professional cartographers, they should adjust the user interface to align more closely with common GIS software packages like ArcGIS and Quantum GIS. To conclude, Tableau’s versatility is both its best and worst feature, being that it’s confusing to learn at first but with time it becomes an efficient and advanced tool for data visualization.
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