Tag Archives: data visualization

Basic Web Programming

D3 Visualization Basics — Introduction

Data visualization is important, really important. I can’t be more blunt than that. We are able to process much more information faster by seeing a visual representation than we could look at a table, database or interacting with a spreadsheet. I will be writing a series of posts that explore some of the foundations D3 is built on along with how to create engaging data visualizations using it.

D3 is a powerful tool that allows you to create interactive data visualizations for the web. Understanding how D3 works starts with understanding how modern web pages are designed.

If you have found this page, you probably at least have some knowledge of how to make a modern website: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, responsive design, etc. D3 uses basic elements from these components of web design to create the visualizations. This by no means the only way to create interactive visualizations, but this is an effective way to produce them.

Before jumping into D3 nuts and bolts, let’s look at what does each of these components do. [If you already know this stuff, feel free to skip ahead…once I get the other posts built out.]

Basic Web Programming

In the most simplistic terms, HTML provides the structure of the webpage, CSS provides the styling and formatting, and JavaScript provides the functionality of the site. The browser brings these three components together and interprets them into something the end user (you) can understand and use. Sometimes one component can accomplish what the other does, but if you stick to this generalization you’ll be in good shape.

To produce a professional-looking, fully-functional D3 data visualization you will need to understand, write and manipulate all three components.

HTML

The most vivid memories I have of HTML is from the websites of the late 90s: Geocities, Angelfire, etc. HTML provides instructions on how browsers should interpret information; it organizes the information. Everything you see on a webpage has corresponding HTML code.

If you look at the source HTML or inspect one of this site’s page you’ll see some of the structure. When HTML renders in the browser these elements are referred to DOM elements. DOM stands for Document Object Model, which is the structure of a webpage.

HTML containers

Looking at the DOM tree you can see the many of the div containers that provide structure for the how the site is laid out. The p tags contain each paragraph in the content of my posts. h1, h2 and h3 are subheadings I’ve made to make the post more organized. You also notice some attributes especially class which have many uses for CSS, JavaScript and D3. Classes in particular are used to identify what function that DOM element plays in JavaScript or how to style it in CSS.

CSS

A house without painted walls or decorations is pretty boring. The same thing happens with bare bones HTML. You can organize the information, but it won’t be in an appealing format.

Most sites have style sheets (CSS) which sets margins, colors, display options, etc. Style sheets have a specific syntax which identifies HTML elements by type, class or id. This identification and selection concept is used extensively in D3.

CSS example

Above is some CSS from this site. It contains formatting instructions for elements of the class “page-links”. It includes instructions for the font size, margins, height, width and to make the text all uppercase. The advantage of CSS is that it keeps formatting away from the structure of the HTML allowing you to format many elements at once. For example if you wanted to change the color of every link, you could easily do that by modifying the CSS.

There is an alternative to using CSS style sheets and that’s by using inline style definitions.

Inline styles use the same markup as the CSS in the style sheets. Inline styles

  • control only the element they are in
  • OVERRIDE any CSS styles [without an !important tag]

The code above overrides the normal paragraph’s style property which aligns it left. Using inline styles are generally bad for web design, but it’s important to understand how they work since D3 manipulates inline styles often.

JavaScript

JavaScript breathes life into your web page. It certainly not the only way to have your website become interactive or build programming into it, but it is widely used and supported in the popular browsers. D3 is a JavaScript library, so you will inevitably have to write JavaScript to use it.

For D3 visualization, JavaScript will be use to

  • Manage and manipulate data for the visualization
  • Create DOM elements
  • Manipulate DOM elements
  • Destroy DOM elements
  • Attach data to DOM elements

JavaScript will be used insert elements onto the page, it will also be used to change colors and styles of those elements. You might be able to see how this could be useful. For example JavaScript could map data points to an element’s position for a scatter plot or to an element’s height or width for a bar chart.

I bolded the last function D3 does, attaching data to elements, because it’s so critical to D3. This allows you to attach a data point beyond x, y data to allow for rich visualization.

__data__

Above is data attached to a D3 visualization I made for FanGraphs. This is a simple example, but I was able to attach data detailing the team’s name, id, league, ERA and FIP. Using the attached data I was able to create the graph and tooltips. More complex designs can take advantage of the robust data structure D3 provides.

[Next]

I’ll look at how to set up a basic project by organizing data, files and code.