Dear Santa: I want great online data software.

As the final days of the summer wind down for me,   I am starting the “prep time”  that all teachers go through before classes start. I get very ambitious and idealistic, and try to stay that way for as long as circumstances and my stamina allow.  This year, I have a couple of ambitious goals.   Here’s the biggest one.

I really want to  see a revolution in online statistics software tools for students and teachers.  Here’s what I want.

1.  I want a “data viewer,”  that could handle tab delimited text data, and create visual displays, summary statistics, and appropriate tests.  It should look as appealing as

2.  I want it to have,  at a minimum,   the flexibility and  functionality of  Fathom:  Easy-to-create  dot plots, histograms, box plots, segmented bar charts, percentile plots, normal probability plots,  etc… I also want it to run appropriate statistical tests.  Gapminder is great but it does only scatter plots, and no tests / summary statistics.

3.  I want teachers and students to be able to create surveys,  invite subjects to respond with a simple URL + password,  and post  the data up there for others to use.  Data could be uploaded as private or public.

4.  I want teachers and students to be able to join / create public surveys,  and generate  databases .   I want public databases to be available on the web for all to use/ see.

5.  I want  “dots”  to be easily replaced with easy to find icons:  guys, girls, men, women,  numbers, colors,  maybe … perish the thought…. Photos/icons  that students could upload of themselves? Each “dot”  in some displays could be a head?

6.  I want security options to range from public to completely private .

7.  I want it to be cost effective and something that people would pay for / use despte the cost.  Heaven forbid…. maybe free?

8.  I want “social network functionality.”

9.  I want pretty, simple, attractive,  and appropriate visuals.

10.  I want  educators in statistics/ data analysis in on the design of this.

11.  I want one-stop shopping.   Facebook, baby.  Google, baby.

I can think of a dozen different places that have little bits and pieces of this.   It doesn’t seem  too “pie-in-the-sky”  to  make this happen.  I am going to ask the computer science students at my school to consider working on something like this.   Bill Finzer at Fathom –  are you listening?    This could be a revolution, I think.   This seems grant-worthy.

So I need your help.   Who knows who would want to develop something like this?  

Is KeyPress still working on  updating Fathom?   It’s been at least 2 years since an update.  These days, that’s  glacial pace.  

Currently,   too many people teaching Stats/  Data analysis are using too many different tools. TI’s,  Fathom, Excel, Minitab, JMP, SPSS,  R,  SAS,  not to mention the online stats tools +Geogebra.    It seems reasonable (at least at the high school level) to construct a tool that meets the needs I outlined above. Imagine a classroom where you have easy access to a ton of databases, without a lot of time teaching kids how to use the software.  Imagine kids getting lots in some really cool data bases.  Imagine them “tinkering”  for hours, and bringing up questions in class.  Imagine asking them to find their own examples and constructing written critiques.

Accessing these files can generate important questions and investigations for kids  that are essential to their growth in statistics.

This is a bit idealistic, but it’s doable.  I’m sure of it.  We just need to time, the money, and somebody to do it.

I don’t want to hear that this can’t be done.   Tell what the obstacles are,  I’m convinced there are ways around them.   

Any ideas?


About roughlynormal

I have been a math/statistics teacher for 25 years. I currently teach at an independent school in southern California. I also coach teaching fellows for Math for America - Los Angeles chapter. I love my career, my colleagues, and my friends & family.
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6 Responses to Dear Santa: I want great online data software.

  1. sorry that this is not related to your prompt, but i figured you might know the answer to my question: last year we did a data driven project about the population of the world and the population of various countries using UN data ( I loved doing this and would like to do another similar project where students can choose what they are interested in from a rich database of data and then do all sorts of math with it. i’m having trouble finding really good options that are as easy to navigate and powerful as this website. any ideas for me?

    • roughlynormal says:

      There are a lots of great resources out there:

      one place to start generating conversations about multiple-country comparisons is at ‘s international programs: looking at population pyramids.

      Once you see some of these work on designing some discussion questions around them:

      1. Can you write a sentence explaining the length of THIS bar?
      2. Consider a country that’s undergone a major demographic shift (often due to War, famine, disease): Which pyramid is for 1950, and which is for 2010?

      Of course is one of my favorites.

      Also, I’m interested: what are your mathematical goals for your projects with your kids? What other learning goals do you have?

      With any website, you will need to really work through it and “learn it” before working with kids. Figure out what’s intriguing you, and causing you to do some god math along the way. Then design questions/ tasks along those lines.

      I wish you happy investigations with your kids.

  2. last year we did an investigation on inflection points using country population data, trying to numerically find inflection points without having a function. then, later in the course, the students all did a population forecast using exponential/logarithmic/decay models (they picked the country, then picked models that worked in the short term, long term etc). i also wanted them to try to explain the graph relating 1st/2nd derivatives to historical events or ideas about growth trends (like you suggested). it was fun – i didn’t have any specific math goals for other sets of data, but thought that some inspiration would come to me (or my students) based on the data (by the way, i’m not just looking for population stuff, really any type of data would work as long as it’s relatively easy to navigate… sales, hurricanes, temp of the world). thanks for the census website and gapminder though, and totally agree with your advice to have to work through the website beforehand.

  3. roughlynormal says:

    Thanks Bowman: One thing I want to challenge you (and everybody, including myself) on: before picking a ‘cool’ or ‘fun’ activity, focus first on knowing your math goals for your kids. What’s hard for them? What do they struggle with? What’s hard to teach? What do they really need in their future studies? What prevents them from getting/ going deeper into important mathematics?

    This isn’t easy, but it’s important, and has helped me a ton in being more effective with my time and tasks.

    Once I have a focus on those questions, then I start searching / designing. I start asking members of the AP mailing lists for Calculus and Statistics (or your blog-buddies) what they’ve done around those topics. Over the years, who I ask has been refined for certain courses/ topics. Get some focused goals first. Then, when you start searching, the “great example” will become more evidence through the oodles of resources out there. Maybe the answer is a cool contextual situation. Maybe not. But you’ll be more likely to “know it when you see it.”

    Cheers, BT

  4. Kate Nowak says:

    Hi Bill – I think it’s totally do-able but it’s a huge project. I don’t think someone is going to come riding in all like “I’LL DO IT! IN MY SPARE TIME! OR ON SUMMER VACATION!” This project would need a math/stats person, an educator, a web developer, visual design, database programming…

    There are examples of ideas like this taking shape and turning into actual products. Riley Lark quit his teaching job and started ActiveGrade with two other guys. BetterLesson was a handful of teachers with an idea who got funding and hired some programmers. For an example of what one person actually has done in a summer, check out Blue Harvest.

    Hope that helps? It sounds awesome and I want to use it. Make it happen, Bill.

  5. Dan M says:

    I like Fathom a lot and like you would like to see it continue and grow – there is a lot of potential there.

    Fathom’s younger sibling, Tinkerplots actually has a lot of great features too. I think that its features make it useful beyond the middle-school market that it is aimed at – I’ve used it to pretty easily “draw” (i.e. create shapes with data) a lot of nice pictures – some examples are in these posts:

    Some have opted to do much more labor-intensive data visualization using specialized programming tools like Processing (

    Other places you may want to check out: there are great data visualization examples at, and thoughtful commentary on it by Edward Tufte (

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