Turning the tables on raw data
Many government organizations are chartered to collect statistics. But the
real work — making collected information useful in decision-making — means
compiling the raw data into easy-to-understand tables. Unfortunately, this
time-consuming process often entails tabulating data with a statistic package
and then reformatting the results using graphics or word-processing applications.
To reduce the production time and effort in making tables, the Bureau
of Labor Statistics developed the Table Producing Language (TPL) in the
1970s. Although you don't need programming experience to use TPL for data
analysis and publication, learning its many commands requires time and patience.
To sidestep this last hurdle, QQQ Software's latest TPL Tables 5.12
for Windows surrounds TPL with several modules that make building and formatting
tables easier and interactive without diminishing the language's extensive
tabulation and design capabilities. This makes TPL Tables a good choice
for finance, economics, statistics and human resource professionals employed
by government agencies.
Producing tables involves a few basic steps, which can be done manually
(to maintain compatibility with older DOS, OS/2 and Unix versions) or using
the new interactive features. After exporting a Microsoft Corp. Access database
containing unemployment statistics as fixed-length records, I spent a few
minutes preparing a text-based Codebook, which describes the data's layout,
such as field names and their position in the file.
Next, again using a text editor, I built a Table Request file. This
central step involves assembling TPL statements, for example, to compute
statistics (such as average income) and group the values under headings
that you specify.
Finally, I ran the job, which analyzed a 5,000-record database and produced
several tables in just a few minutes.
It likely will take new users a week or so to learn the many computational
and formatting commands. But with that understanding, TPL Tables performs
some amazing tasks, yielding significant time savings and high-quality tables.
For example, layering let me describe a table and then have the software
automatically produce results for each region of the country.
Similarly, the nesting command permits any number of levels on one table.
To test this function, I showed unemployment statistics broken down by gender,
race, age and then marital status.
Besides structuring tables, I selected a range of information from the
database (such as age over 50), included totals and subtotals, and performed
other calculations, including medians and percentiles. Moreover, formatting
options helped me place page breaks and modify color text and column widths.
I would advocate a few changes to TPL Tables' basic interface to make
it easier to select the proper files and run a job. On the other hand, TPL
Tables 5.12 doesn't require the training of past versions because you can
interactively create and modify Codebooks and table requests and then edit
With TBLD (TBL Table Builder), I designed a table by simply dragging
variables to the appropriate rows and columns in a graphical workspace.
In the same way, I defined computations, entered labels and placed footnotes.
In all, TBLD helped me quickly tap the power of the program with far less
typing and little worry about making syntax errors.
For making last-minute table changes once you see the actual results,
TED, the new TPL Editor, easily reformats PostScript files. I merely clicked
on any part of the completed table displayed on screen, then edited column
widths, deleted rows and changed type styles.
There are still a few loose ends, such as the lack of an interactive
way to build a Codebook for information in a Microsoft SQL database. QQQ
Software said an extra-charge ODBC interface to ease this task is planned
for a fall release.
Nonetheless, TPL Tables 5.12 for Windows streamlines the table production
process by eliminating the need for several applications. The program operates
very fast and offers abundant calculations and formatting options. These
are convincing reasons to give TBL Tables a close look.
—Heck is an InfoWorld contributing editor and manager
of electronic promotions at Unisys Corp. in Blue Bell, Pa.