We do a lot of data "bashing" around here. That’s our preferred term for cleaning, manipulating, matching, and analyzing large chunks of data. Such a macho word is no doubt an attempt to compensate for our soft, white-collar work.
Even so, there is something to be said for tangibility in your work. I like the feeling of fashioning finely honed insights from the raw material of ones and zeros. Unfortunately, the tools for data bashing frequently lack a hands-on feel. (This desire for substance may be the reason why so many people are inclined toward 3-D charts.)
This desire for tangibility crystalized for me when I was introduced to a mapping tool by the folks at GeoWise. Their InstantAtlas geographic presentation software does a great job of making data easy to explore and tangible for the user. In the screenshot below, I can click towns (in red) and the data shows up in the graphs and map. That is tangible, easy-to-use data exploration.
Another data tool I like to use is called JMP. It is an intuitive and straightforward statistics/analysis package that handles larger data sets (south of 500k records). One of its best features is the ability to quickly see frequency distributions of variables - and relate them to distributions of other variables. In the image below, I’ve clicked on "very satisfied" in the first distribution (dark green) and I can see where those data points show up for the other survey categories.
Like InstantAtlas, you can pick a subset of data and see the characteristics of that data. This simple capability can make the sometimes dreary business of exploring numbers much more engaging.