10 Minute Reviews: Open Flash Chart

We frequently get requests to review and write about analytics-related solutions. I’ve put off most of these requests because it sounded like a lot of work. Then I had an 4-hour-work-week-style epiphany: most new users only give a new product or service a few minutes before they make up their mind. Why can’t I make the same snap judgement and call it an expert opinion?

First up is Open Flash Charts, pointed out to us by Matt Bear. This is an open source project started by John Glazebrook to provide flash charts that can be embedded in web pages. I love John’s explanation for taking on this project:

“Once upon a time I had to deal with a company who sell flash charting components, their component had a bug that I needed fixing, so I emailed them about it asking when it’d be fixed. (Remember that I had paid real money for this software.) They were so incompetent, rude and obnoxious that after three or four weeks of emails I thought to myself “I could learn Flash and Actionscript and write my own charting component, release it as Open Source, host it on sourceforge and build up a community of helpful coders faster than they can fix a single bug.” And that is what I did. And that is why it is free. I guess the moral of the lesson is: don’t piss off your customers.”

Great lesson. Great attitude. There are a bunch of vendors in this space (Fusion Charts, AnyChart, ILOG, PHP/SWF Charts, amCharts, Corda) and the going price seems to start at $500 for a developer’s license up to $5,000 for an enterprise license. (Apparently that doesn’t always come with customer service.)

Fusion Charts

Open Flash Charts isn’t as flashy as any of these products, but that tends to be a good thing for charting components. Here’s a column chart from Fusion charts (notice how each bar is a separate color, for no good reason)

Open Flash Charts

Here’s the Open Flash Charts

Open Flash Charts does a number of things well:

  • It seems to be easy to implement. Basically, you just copy the Open Flash Chart SWF file into your web server, then start embedding flash charts into your HTML and point to either static or dynamic data on your server.
  • You can configure data labels, background, number formats, on-click events, tooltips, etc.
  • All the basic chart types are available (bar, line, area, pie, scatter).
  • The help forum seem both lively (multiple messages a day) and supportive (a generally polite tone with lots of code posted).

On the negative side, Open Flash Charts doesn’t totally succeed in terms of data visualization fundamentals. The default charts have some contrast issues, odd color choices, and a little excess chartjunk. And when the charts get some “pizzazz,” things get worse:

Pizzazz chart

I know… it is an open source project, so I should step up and fix the things I don’t like. I would, but I just ran out of my 10 minutes.