What is Tableau?

Tableau is a tool for presenting and interacting with data. The software provides a user-friendly visualization platform that allows users to view, combine, and modify data in real-time and from multiple sources. It enables users to customize views, layout, shapes, colors and other attributes of their charts to gain greater insight into data. The software has two components: a stand-alone desktop application that is licensed to run only on a single computer (Tableau Desktop) and, optionally, a separate component that enables publishing and sharing of visualizations online (Tableau Server). Using Tableau Server, charts, graphs, dashboards (collections of different graphs and information), and reports can be placed on the web and manipulated interactively by any number of users.

ITS Software Licensing provides Tableau licenses for University of Michigan faculty and staff (see ITS website for current rates). Tableau Desktop is free to use for active students and instructors.

Free technical training is available to the University of Michigan through The following training modules and Google Groups are recommended primers on Tableau and data visualization:

When Tableau is the Right Visualization Tool:

  • If you need to combine, analyze, or visualize data that updates often or is stored in multiple locations. Tableau can connect to a wide variety of data sources simultaneously, including spreadsheets like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets, text files such as Comma-Separated Values (CSV) files, statistical files (such as SAS, SPSS, or R), or direct connections to databases such as MySQL, Microsoft Access, or the U-M Data Warehouse.
  • If you need to share your visualizations with colleagues. Tableau Server allows users to publish visualizations and dashboards online. You may also assign access privileges to the online visualizations (see Guidelines for Access Control, below).
  • If you need to express your data in a manner not available in other tools. Treemaps, filled geographical maps, packed bubbles, heat maps, and many more chart types are available in Tableau. The charts are easy to manipulate and configure. Charts can also be assembled as a Dashboard or chained together in a Story.
  • If you need to visualize “big data.” The software is designed to manipulate large data sets easily, potentially petabytes in size.

When Tableau is NOT the Right Visualization Tool:

  • If you need to visualize your data in a way Tableau does not support. Other tools may provide visualization methods not available in Tableau.
  • If Tableau licenses are cost prohibitive. Tableau is licensed through ITS and requires both initial step costs and recurring annual fees. See the ITS Tableau Licensing page for current pricing. Note that Tableau Desktop is free to use for active students and instructors.
  • If your need is calculation rather than visualization. While Tableau does support sophisticated mathematical operations, other tools such as Excel or statistical software are better optimized to “crunch numbers.” (The resulting numbers could then be visualized in Tableau, of course.)