Tools I Love #4: Google Sheets

Tools I Love #4: Google Sheets

I don't know if I've ever made a visualization without Google Sheets. Like the sturdy vessel of a seasoned explorer, it's fast, powerful, and a key part of almost every data journey I undertake.

It's there with me when I get hold of raw data and need to understand it. It's there when I analyse that data to bring out the story that I want to tell. It's there when I want to collaborate with others on that data. And it's there when I want to export that data to another app for visualization.

Sheets is my favourite data analysis tool for four key reasons:

  1. It's fast. Type into a browser (never go through, the slowest interface in the world), and you've got a blank spreadsheet in front of you in a matter of seconds. The vast capacity of Google's server infrastructure means that super-complex calculations across thousands of rows are solved instantanously.
  2. It's powerful. Its library of functions is pretty much identical to Excel's these days, and if there's something missing then Apps Script lets you write it yourself in Javascript. I rarely come up against a problem that I can't solve in Google Sheets. And that's before you get to the collaboration functionality - cell comments, document history, live simultaneous editing, sharing controls.
  3. Perhaps most importantly of all, it's easy to use. Like Figma, its vast power is largely hidden, but the features you need are always at your fingertips. It's intuitive if you know nothing about spreadsheets or data analysis, and it's also easy to find more advanced features when you need them.
  4. It's free. As part of Google's office suite, it costs absolutely nothing (except for your usage data, of course). Why spend money on expensive data analysis software when you don't have to?

That's not to say there aren't improvements I'd like to see in Google Sheets. The CSV import process is clunky. I sometimes get weird bugs with text input, inserting phantom newline characters (this may be on my end). The charting options are disappointingly inflexible (though bonus points for allowing SVG export). But these don't dull my love for one of the most important tools in my arsenal.

There are people that worship Excel, and I understand that. Sometimes you want or need to have software running or your files stored locally. I'm privileged in that I rarely work with highly sensitive data and I'm rarely without a web connection. Taking that into account, I'm much more likely to jump ship to Python/Pandas for a particularly hardcore data analysis than I am to load up Excel.

Want to improve your Google Sheets skills? I've been getting a lot out of the Collins School of Data, which has a free 30 day advanced formulas challenge that teaches how to use many of the high-end functions available in Sheets - including advanced formatting, the powerful index()/match() combo, and even the query() function, which has its own language to learn. You can enroll for free right here.