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Putting Spatial Data Visualization in Its Place

Putting Spatial Data Visualization in Its Place

We are firm believers that you should be able to do more with your data. With the number of advanced data visualizations solutions out there, making your data work for you – instead of the other way around – has become more realistic and less daunting than ever before.

This is especially true for GIS data.

Thanks to programs like ArcGIS, the mapping of spatial data has moved beyond paper and endless patience. Thanks to programs like Tableau, spatial data can be analyzed and visualized just like it were any other piece of information. Thanks to the industrious organizations looking for both, using these solutions alongside one another is becoming a more frequent practice.

If you are reading this, you likely have an idea of what Tableau can and cannot do. Primarily a data visualization application, it has seen strides in the last year on the mapping front. Allowing users to import specific data types, it is now easier for GIS users to employ robust visualization tools against their spatial data. For some with little to no previous exposure with GIS, it is offering a way to interact with a science they may not have been aware of otherwise.

For those who have dipped a toe in either software pool, maybe now you have found yourself wondering – Why not just use one or the another? What are the benefits of using both?

Well, it’s funny you should ask.

Visualizing Spatial Data with Tableau

Tableau is designed for analyzing and visualizing data, leaving the user to decide how advanced of a journey on which to embark. As shown below, the clean interface allows for drag-and-drop functionality to quickly build – and even more quickly modify – comparisons of variables in classic modules like scatter plots, line graphs, and more.

Video: Tableau

The ability to easily create and distribute these graphs so commonly found in the analysis and reporting process is something Esri does not immediately offer in ArcGIS outside of integration with Microsoft Office.

While these features in Tableau hold their own, the mapping functionality incorporated in the application is still a work in progress. Spatial data may be uploaded via Esri files (.shp, .shx, or .dbf) or KML files (.kml). This data may then be displayed geographically, creating vibrant choropleth maps – and even manipulating select groups to show more advanced mapping techniques like heat maps.

ArcGIS is Alive

Despite Tableau integrating mapping features and having more in the pipeline, it is not a solid replacement for Esri in many businesses. There are still quite a few things ArcGIS has going for it that have yet to make their way into this solution, such as…

  1. Not All File Types Allowed - Tableau can only import .shp, .shx, and .dbf files from the Esri environment. Feature classes – let alone geodatabase – and layer files are not permitted.
  2. Complex Geometries Get Tricky - Points and polygons translate well to Tableau. However, lines and mixed-type geometries may have an issue.
  3. Multitudes of Map Projections vs. One and Only - ArcGIS offers many options for map projections to better suit the region, data, standards, etc. Tableau has a default map projection for all data and region, with no discernable alternatives in the pipeline.
  4. Interpolation Issues - While Tableau is a pro at advanced analysis involving graphing and charting, advanced interpolation techniques for geographic data are tricky at best – impossible at worst. This includes tasks like the aggregation of points to form a new geographic feature, as an example.
  5. Everything but the View Sync - When displaying multiple maps within a Tableau dashboard, it is not possible to synchronize the view. On the other hand, this is a function Esri has managed to do well with solutions like ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Pro, etc.

These are just a few points, the importance of which may differ depending on the user, company, task, project, and more. Despite the disparities, they do make great companion tools for study and reporting.

Importing Alternative Data Types in Tableau

Recommended companions or no, being able to import spatial data from ArcGIS to Tableau is a genuine concern – especially for those who either do not wish to convert their coveted feature classes and layer files to shapefiles or even have too many to make the process justified.

Thankfully, solutions like Integrated Portage exist for a reason. Stay strong, everyone. Don’t let those shapefiles get to you.

Designed for ArcMap, this Add-In allows the GIS user to convert feature classes and layer files into formats easily consumed by Tableau, like Microsoft Access Databases (.mdb) and Tableau Data Extracts (.tde). Records, or database tables, may also be given the conversion treatment. Once exported, they may be consumed by Tableau and visualized to heart’s content.

Defining Spatial Data from Tableau Exports

Likewise, Tableau data exports can be imported into ArcGIS through the Integrated Portage Add-In. This is handy functionality should a coworker or manager wish to play around the data, but require it be in an Esri-compatible format.

Whether using ArcGIS and Tableau independently or together, they are both valuable and powerful solutions to problems we often face in creating, analyzing, and visualizing our complex spatial data. We like the complement they pay one another. We like even better when the process to move data from one platform to another is as easy as the run of a tool. We hope that you would agree.

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