VisWeek updates by Jérôme Cukier: Day 4
The IEEE VisWeek Conference 2011 is taking place in Providence, RI this week (23rd to 28th). VisWeek 2011 is the premier forum for visualization advances for academia, government, and industry, bringing together researchers and practitioners with a shared interest in tools, techniques, technology and theory.
The week is organized around three separate conferences IEEE Visualization 2011, the venue for all visualization research for data that has an intrinsic spatial component, IEEE Information Visualization 2011 focused on research relating to visual mappings of non-spatial data and interaction techniques and IEEE Visual Analytics Science and Technology 2011 which concerns the reasoning processes involved in visual analysis and the application of visual environments to generate useful insight about real-world problems.
I’m disappointed to not be able to attend the event this week but am delighted that Jérôme Cukier has very kindly agreed to provide updates of his discoveries, reactions and experiences. I’m particularly pleased to provide a platform for Jérôme’s updates because I consider him to be one of the most astute and thoughtful observers within the visualisation field.
Day Four – Wednesday 26th October
Today the InfoVis part of visweek started, and with a fanfare. The first session of the day, Theory and Foundation of InfoVis, put together by Jeff Heer, had two presentations which would easily rank among the 5 more interesting I have seen in my four years of visweek, both by the same person: Jessica Hullman. A lot of what we see in VisWeek is built with a very specific problem in mind. It so happens that some times, we find a more general use for the technique (for instance, treemaps – and more on that in a moment) but most of the time this is not the point, and we, non-scientists, have little chance to see a direct application of that. On top of that I feel a divide, probably unintentional, between researchers and practitioners and designers. Again discuss David McCandless work with an InfoVis researcher and you will not get a nuanced reaction. Still, designers need research, they need people who push the envelope of representation, they need to have their intuitions conceptualized and critiqued so they can move forward. In that respect, Jessica’s work is a very important attempt to bridge this gap in a positive and constructive way.
The first presentation “Benefiting InfoVis with Visual Difficulties” was combating the idea that the best representations are always the most immediate to understand. This is the dominant view, however: do not use pie charts because comparing angles is more difficult than comparing lengths or areas, do not add “chart junk”, make your chart as fast to process as possible. The fancy term for that is make it as cognitively efficient as possible. It so happens however that these stumbling blocks have positive effects which are undervalued: the associated charts may be slower to read but they are easier to understand or to remembered. There have been papers on the subject, such as “Useful Junk?“, or “Fortune favors the bold (and the italicized)“. What I liked about Jessica’s approach is that it led to usable, actionable points.
The second paper, with Nick Diakopoulos, is about “visualization rhetoric”. De-academicized, this means using visualization to convince or persuade. I have always thought that this was an area where visualization had great potential, and again it contrasts with the view that visualization should be used to give an “honest”, “truthful” representation of data, “like it is”. Again, I feel this is the most common view here. The paper looks at minute aspects of visualizations and describe how they can influence the way users form opinion. Then again, it’s only hugely relevant to relatively few people, like politicians, advocacy groups, journalists, communication and advertising agencies, or those businesses that try to sell things.
I won’t go in much details about the next session of the morning about infoVis techniques, chaired by Jason Dykes. I am confident however that such techniques and especially those of the first and last presentation will find their way into consumer-facing visualizations soon. The first one, context-preserving visual links, is a mouthful and the thinking behind it and the implementation is quite sophisticated but it is one of these things that looks brillantly simple when you see it. The last technique, Asymmetric relations in longitudinal social networks, doesn’t have that immediacy effect and took me the whole time of the talk to get my eyes atuned to it but I was sitting with Kim Rees from Periscopic who really liked it and whose expert eye could see how it could be touched up and be put to good use.
On one of the afternoon sessions, Mike Bostock presented d3. I take that most people who are interested in building visualizations know d3 and have probably seen the slides of this presentation who have made the rounds of Twitter. Well there’s more to the presentation than the slides, and Mike’s explanation put it in context nicely and justified the motivation to break from protovis to build d3. So no, Mike didn’t commit that d3 will not be replaced by a new framework sometime down the road, although it’s fair to say that d3 has much more room to grow than protovis so that won’t happen anytime soon. Mike argued though that he felt that d3 is easier than protovis. Offline, he agreed that you could take that with a bit of salt. The d3 learning curves starts off steep but I agree with him that once you get over the initial difficulties it is more efficient to make things with d3 than with Protovis. The good news is that a Mike Bostock book on d3 is coming.
I can’t report much of the last session as I took some time to discuss with the exhibitors and artists. I didn’t attend TCC11 so I spent some time playing with Tableau 7 and chatting with Jock MCInlay and Lori Williams about the features that would be nice to have. In the art exhibit I really liked the Fluid Automata iPad app by Angus Forbes.
Let’s see what we’ll have tomorrow!