How to label Excel and XY scatter plots

In an earlier post I compared number formatting in Excel vs. Calc. I’ve learned some more interesting things about both spreadsheets, as regards opening CSV files and adding labels to XY scatter charts (spoiler: both spreadsheets have problems)

Excel vs. Calc

Opening CSV files with Excel

Maybe someone else can answer this one for me, because I’m stumped and can’t seem to find the right search phrase to turn up relevant results in Google: I can’t get Excel to open a .csv file on my friend’s Mac. It runs OSX, and the “About Excel” dialog says “Excel X for Mac” (can you tell what a dummy I am when it comes to Mac? The only thing that saves me is the presence of the Terminal, so I can resort to the command line to do things). Both of us have tried all the ways we know. No matter what we do in the Open dialog, including choosing “All Readable Files,” it leaves CSV files grayed out. The only way we’ve found is to rename it to something else such as .txt, open the file, and then do Data->Text To Columns.

Labelling XY scatter charts

I’ve been working with cemetery data again. Recently we took a total station out to a cemetery and mapped it, then downloaded the data as tab-separated values. For a quick and dirty map of the data, it’s great to import it into a spreadsheet, select the Northing and Easting columns, and map it as a scatter plot. This gives a quick sense of what the map looks like. Of course, when you’ve got hundreds of points on the map, you want them labelled so you can see what they are, like so:

The desired result

The first column in the spreadsheet is the point’s name. We tried and tried but couldn’t get Excel to plot the points with nice labels next to them. A bit of Googling revealed lots of other frustrated folks with the same problem. This has been a limitation in Excel for many years, and so many people want this feature, I wonder why they aren’t implementing it. The good news is, someone has written a little utility which will label XY scatter plots in Excel, both for PC and Mac (here’s another link). So it’s possible to do after all – just not easy, and not built-in.

On the other hand, opening the same file with Calc and creating the same graph led me to believe it is supported in Calc. The graphing autopilot has a step where I specified the first column as labels:

Step 1, choosing the data

But after following through the rest of the steps – choose chart type, etc etc – the final result has no labels. I fooled around with it for a while, read the documentation and surfed the web, but still couldn’t get it to show the labels. Only after I posted on the forums did I find an answer:

  1. Select the data, start the graphing AutoPilot, check “First column as labels” and create the graph
  2. Place the cursor over the unselected graph and right click. Select “Edit”
  3. Select “Insert > Data Labels…” and check “Show Label Text”

I probably would not have solved this on my own. The way to select and unselect charts, and how to modify their properties, is really unintuitive, I’m afraid. Even after fooling with charts a while, I’m still blundering through things like exactly what sequence of actions is necessary to make a chart editable, what I need to do to alter the scale on the axes, and so forth. Even if I had known all that in advance, though, I wouldn’t think to go to the Insert menu to add labels to the chart. I told it to do that when I created the chart – why doesn’t it show them by default? If I didn’t want them to show, I wouldn’t have specified the first column as labels.

I conclude both Excel and both have some room for improvement. I’m sure that comes as no surprise! The good news is, is a community-driven effort, with an open bug-tracking system and active forums – not to mention it’s Free Software. You know who I’m backing… take ‘em to the mat!

See Also

I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and lots of open-source software for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB. More about me.