Google adds new options for viewing data in Fusion Tables

Updates to its online data visualization tool should make it easier for people to explore large data sets

Google is trying to popularize the somewhat obscure art of data visualization by adding more user-friendly options to its Fusion Tables app.

Google hosted a technology and journalism conference Thursday where it announced new features for Fusion Tables that give users more ways to explore and visualize large data sets.

One new feature provides a checklist from which users can select different subsets, or facets, of the data to see how they'll look when added in different combinations to a map or a chart. It has also added tabs that let users compare the different views they create to decide which is best.

Fusion Tables also has some new formats for displaying data, including a network graph for showing relationships in a social network, and a zoomable line chart.

There's also a new Fusion Tables API, available to "trusted testers," that can return data in JSON, so it's easier to manipulate with Javascript, and that allows tables, templates and map styles to be modified using RESTful programming. Users can sign up to try out the API here.

The features have been added to the Experimental version of Fusion Tables. Information about the Experimental and Classic versions is here.

Fusion Tables works with pretty much any data sets to which a user has read access. The visualizations can be embedded into a website, where they remain interactive.

"One of the big goals of Fusion Tables is to enable many people to work with databases," said Alon Halevy, Google's head of structured data research, in an interview last week.

"Databases are known to be the hardest known software beasts ever created by man or woman. A lot of the people that have data and want to tell stories about their data, share it and visualize it, are people who don't have database expertise, or don't even have access to database expertise," he said.

Even with the new features, Fusion Tables isn't as intuitive as some other Google products, but it is one of the easier-to-use among the free multipurpose visualization tools. Users don't need any coding expertise to use it, for example.

Google says millions of tables have been created using Fusion Tables.

"We're trying to create an ecosystem around structured data," said Halevy. "The Web [is] so successful because there's an ecosystem that makes it easy to create data, it makes it easy to discover data, and therefore things happen." A similar ecosystem for the information now buried in databases that are difficult to access and interpret would "bring a lot of value from data that exists already," Halevy said.

Democratized data can have real effects, including opening up governments and alerting aid workers to unfolding disasters, Halevy and his engineering manager Sreeram Balakrishnan said.

But the Fusion Tables search feature that was also recently added does not yet return many results, despite Google's work to create an algorithm that can differentiate quality structured data from, for example, HTML tables used simply to format text.

There's still a way to go before the vast troves of information socked away in databases can be accessed and understood by an average user.

Cameron Scott covers search, web services and privacy for The IDG News Service. Follow Cameron on Twitter at CScott_IDG.