Google Docs has pivot tables!

Goodbye desktop, we're off to see the web.

Both my students and I have been challenged this semester by the diversity of computer platforms, software versions, and unexpected bugs. Naturally, I turned to the world and my readers for help and suggestions. Some readers have suggested we could solve everything by using Linux. Others have convincingly demonstrated that Open Office is a reasonable alternative.

But, now there's something new and cool on the web.

Okay, it's still in the beta stages, and apparently it can only be used by a limited number of people at a time, but it's certainly there and with a bit of persistance, I was able to try it out and get it to work.

To make a pivot table with Google Docs, you open your spread sheet with data, choose the Insert menu, and add the Pandora Pivot Table gadget to your spread sheet. Figuring out how to make the pivot table took a bit longer, but that's another post and I may wait until it moves out of the beta stage.

Here's what I made with our bacteria data. This pie graph shows all the bacteria that were isolated in 2004.


In the next graph, I split the bacteria up by biome (creek, forest, or unknown).


And, as others pointed out, and I've decided they're right, a bar graph probably is a better way to do the comparison. This isn't quite the bar graph presentation that I had in mind, so I'll have to work on this one a bit. But it was quick and it's a start.


Now, for my fall bioinformatics class, I just have to write up the instructions and make another movie.

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That's really cool if you want Google to own all of your data.

Yeah I'm sure it's a concern that Google is going to steal the data on bacterial populations from a bioinformatics course ::rollseyes::
This seems like a great solution to the problem of different software on different platforms, and should be pretty easy to implement in your teaching. Some might say that you won't be teaching the use of "real world" tools, but I would argue that the general principle of making and analyzing data using pivot tables will be passed along, and after that it's just a matter of figuring out what buttons to push. Since all software is different (obviously, given the previous problems that caused this issue to arise), then it's silly to even try to teach a certain package. It's the general analysis technique that is important.

You probably don't want to wait until it is out of beta: Gmail was in beta for about 8 years.

By Alpaca Konundrum (not verified) on 03 Apr 2008 #permalink

Yeah I'm sure it's a concern that Google is going to steal the data on bacterial populations from a bioinformatics course.

Nobody thinks they are going to steal it, and of course nobody cares about this particular data. However, there are very serious issues here. For example, if you use Google Docs with research data and ideas, and then file a US patent application, the date of first disclosure may be when you first put the idea in Google Docs (namely, that's when you disclosed it to Google). I'm not a lawyer, but that's how it looks to me from their terms of service. In any case, if you actually care about patent rights, you'd be crazy to try this without consulting a lawyer before you start.

Their privacy policy is also pretty wimpy. Of course, most other corporate privacy policies are too, and I'm not convinced Google's is worse than average, but that's no excuse. If I'm going to store confidential documents somewhere, I want an ironclad guarantee. This is something that should of course be of much broader concern than just patent rights.

In any case, Google Docs and similar services are nice for throw-away or public documents, but it's dangerous to get into the habit of using them.

Sorry for the slightly off-topic comment. :-)

By Anonymous (not verified) on 03 Apr 2008 #permalink

Anonymous: You bring up a good point. For teaching the basic principles of analyzing data, Google Doc is great. For a work or research environment, where you might be analyzing proprietary data, it's probably not so good.

Luckily, I think if the students understand what we're doing with pivot tables and graphing in Google Docs, they can apply those same principles when working with other kinds of software like Microsoft Excel or Open Office.

Swink has created an application on the web that allows users to create a record keeping system in a matter of minutes without any experience. The application is called Caboodle and allows users to collect data in any format via customizable forms. The personal version is free to use for non-commercial users and is FDA compliant with 21 cfr part 11 clinical research standards. I think you will find it to be better suited for teaching and sharing then Linux, Google Docs, Open Office, or Microsoft Excel. Caboodle also allows for advanced query and exporting of tabular data if you wish to leverage the functionality of other applications.