After a few bumps, the great open-source data journalism experiment is rolling along.
My students installed OpenOffice on their Mac or PC laptops weeks ago and have been using the Calc spreadsheet to analyze data. Its interface isn’t as polished as Microsoft Excel, but we’ve been able to make it do almost everything we need.
Calc lets you run something like Excel’s Pivot Tables to organize and summarize raw data. They’re called Data Pilots in Calc and the exact steps are a little different, but you can end up with the same kinds of results.
We did discover one small shortcoming. Calc lacks a multi-mode function that will tell you whether you have more than one mode. That’s not a deal breaker by any stretch, as you can easily determine that by running a Data Pilot and looking for the values that appear the most.
MySQL for database managers
I expected bigger obstacles with MySQL, the database manager that we’re using as a replacement for Microsoft Access. We initially had some snags when we tried to install the software on students’ laptops. First, it took too long to download the software over our university’s wireless network during class. Lesson learned. So I had my students download all of the files they needed out of class and return ready to go for the next session.
Installing and configuring the free MySQL community server, and the archived GUI tools (Administrator and Query Browser) went smoothly on the PC laptops, mostly because I’m a PC user and have run though this a few times myself. When it came to the Macs, we ran into some configuration errors, which we overcame after some Googling and consulting with DocumentCloud developer Ted Han.
It turns out that we were making things way too complicated. The fix was simple: log into MySQL locally without a password for the root user.
On the whole, I think MySQL with the Query Browser offers a better user experience than Access. You don’t have to go through a bunch of steps to find the SQL window. It’s right there at the top of the screen. Plus, you can see your queries and the results in the same screen.
MySQL also saves a history of your queries. Still, we’re copying and pasting our SQL into a text document, so we can make notes about what questions we were trying to answer.
Some of the students using Macs have opted to use SequelPro as their front-end client for querying.
One big shortcoming of MySQL is that it’s difficult for novices to import data. So instead of wrestling with the command line or using more advanced free tools, we’re going to use Navicat for MySQL. Navicat is a great commercial program that can import a crazy variety of formats, including Access. So, for tomorrow’s class, everyone is supposed to come with with the 30-day trial version installed.
Veteran investigative reporter and data journalist. Advocate for open government.
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