Today, pivot tables are among the most important and commonly used tools in the spreadsheet wizard’s toolbox. “A pivot table lets you create a one-page summary report from hundreds of thousands of rows of data, often in four, five, or six clicks,” says Jelen. “It is the fastest way to get answers from large datasets.”

It’s hard to know exactly how many people use Excel in their day-to-day work, but there are hundreds of millions of Excel users worldwide and it stands to reason that many have picked up the software’s most powerful tool. Pivot tables are generally listed at, or near, the top of lists of the most useful features in Excel. Data analysts use pivot tables to understand public health, economic growth and advertising effectiveness, among many other uses.   

“That’s my life,” says Justine Shakespeare, a senior program manager at nonprofit labor rights organization Verité. “All I do is make pivot tables.” In her case, the pivot tables are to analyze survey data from interviews with migrant workers in global supply chains

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Here’s an example of the pivot table in action. Recently, a reporter at Quartz got access to data on remittances sent from the US to Mexico by month going back to 1995. But what the reporter really needed was a summary of the total remittances in the first six months of each year. Pivot tables were the way to go. Getting the numbers she needed involved inserting a pivot table, making a few selections to choose the data she needed, and filtering out the months she wanted to exclude. The video below shows those steps:

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If you want to learn more about how to use pivot tables, try this video from “Excel ninja” Cody Baldwin. For those who prefer Google Sheets, try this introduction from Sheets expert Ben Collins.

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