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Interactive Data Visualizations

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Jennifer Bove, Kicker Studio.
Jennifer Bove, Kicker Studio.
I've been thinking a lot recently about the growing popularity and potential of interactive data visualizations as feedback mechanisms on the world around us. Over the past few weeks, I've had the pleasure of talking with two talented designers who are both well-steeped in the information visualization space about why we're starting to see more of them and where they see it all going.

Tom Carden is a British interaction designer and engineer at Stamen Design in San Francisco, a firm that just released a new version of their acclaimed Oakland Crimespotting project. He has degrees in both Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Environments, and a corresponding sense of humor about unrealized visions of the future.

Boris Anthony lives in the worldwide web of data. He recently became design director at Dopplr.com. Prior to this he was in charge of design, architecture and production for the GlobalVoicesOnline.org project. When he's not flitzing around the "real" world, he also lives in Montreal, where he runs regular Pecha Kucha Nights.

Here's what they had to say...

There is a lot of buzz about information visualization nowadays. Seems like it's everywhere! Why do you think it's gaining such popularity?

Boris: I think we are seeing info visualizations a lot these days for a fairly simple reason: its means of production has reached a level of flexibility and openness, allowing more and more people to use it. As a means of communication, of telling a story, infoviz is incredibly compelling.

Consider this: we've gone from custom-made illustrations drawn with ink on paper to single-purpose computer programs that could only handle a specific set of data and present it one way, to now entire frameworks that allow someone who is not necessarily a professional to make any kind of visual representation out of any kind of data set.

It's very similar to what happened on the web with blogs, and then web publishing frameworks such as Ruby on Rails: someone develops a toolkit, and bang everyone uses it to make different stuff. And the same thing is now happening in hardware frameworks, with Arduino. As you know, Arduino has the same pedigree as Processing, which is one of, if not the top of, the pile of info visualization frameworks.

And I think people intuitively get information visualizations; they "get" how the hurricane moved along it's path and struck New Orleans, they "get" how this beautiful orb of rays represents the hours of sunlight per day for a year, etc. without having to be bothered with the thinking behind it.

Tom: There are several trends at work, I think.

One trend is that more and more communication is happening online. Visualizing data online is a natural consequence of this. I think historically there had been quite a wide gap between the disciplines of scientific visualization and information graphics, the latter being the stuff you commonly find in newspapers. The introduction of frameworks like Processing, as Boris mentioned, means that those gaps are narrowing, and increasingly people from different disciplines (or no particular discipline at all) might find themselves using the same tools.

Another thing that's happening is that the tools are not only getting better, but they are getting cheaper. Sometimes—often—they're free. And these computational tools are being taught in design schools and computer science schools, and engineering schools and architecture schools, and geography schools and journalism schools. I think Ben Fry and Casey Reas who developed Processing and their colleagues deservedly get a lot of credit for this.

I think Boris is also right about the fact that we're seeing info visualizations spread in a similar way to how blogs spread. I think information graphics are extremely bloggable in their own right, so another reason we're seeing more of them is because it's easy to blog them. And it follows that since we're also reading (and writing) more blogs than ever before that infoviz will get passed around a lot more.

There's another trend I think we should talk about and that's the trend for online interactive visualization. I don't think that you can understate the role of technologies like Flash, AJAX, games, the iPhone and the like in raising the bar and setting people's expectations around what can happen on our digital displays.

Yes, what about interactivity? Obviously people are becoming more accustomed to manipulating data this way. Are they starting to expect interactive tools instead of graphics?

Tom: Well, I really, really want the answer to be yes, but I suspect some people are tool-people and some people are graphic-people.

I think tools are often superior--in theory, given the same data set, an interactive "visualizationist" would make a tool to allow you to manipulate and explore the data, come to your own conclusions about it and export a summary graphic. A skilled traditional "infographicist" would decide what the story is (with a journalist, perhaps) and make the graphic tell that story. The strong story-telling bias for infographics in print media is hard to overcome (and that's not to say that you should). People want you to tell them what the story is. But as someone who deals with data and interactivity, I want you to find the story and explain it to me.

Time Travel Tube Map.
Time Travel Tube Map.
From my own portfolio, there are a couple of examples of this. One early piece I made with Processing is a travel time tube map of London (above). It allows you to click on any (and all) tube stations in London and then rearranges itself around the travel time from that spot. I was heavily inspired by the work of Oskar Karlin, who took travel time data from Elephant & Castle station and redrew the map with that. His map looks like a distorted version of the Harry Beck London Underground map everyone knows, and arguably it's more readable and more attractive for the specific case of Elephant & Castle. But I set out to solve it for all stations and came up with something I think is certainly a more compelling solution than laying out 200 maps by hand...

Stamen's mySociety work.
Stamen's mySociety work.
Another example would be the travel time maps that Stamen made with mySociety (above). Their initial investigations had led them to a series of specific contour maps, and they wanted to extend it to show house prices on the same map as well. The idea was that they'd choose a typical house price budget and make a map based around that. I persuaded them to make a tool instead that would allow you to choose your own travel time and house price budget. We're extending that work to allow you to choose any origin in the U.K. for your journey too, which is the natural next step as far as I'm concerned. The interactive maps can tell all possible stories, and I think that's better than choosing one story, but I think there's still a place for someone to say "this view represents the only place you can live as a new graduate working at the Olympic stadium and commuting for less than an hour."

Boris: The potential of truly interactive visualizations is really exciting. A lot of what I think are precursors in this trend are map-based, and understandably so. Geography, especially local, immediately speaks to people; it's a frame of reference they can grasp without needing a conceptual framework laid out for them. Zoom, pan, load a data set, play it over time... hey look that's my neighborhood!

A lot of data is time-based. Timestamps, those pushpins on the corkboards of our lives, take time to accumulate into meaningful, playable data. In personal informatics this can be tricky: you need to ask your audience to invest effort for a while before they can see anything really cool/useful (Nike+), let alone play with it (daytum.com).

As for the tools topic, do people want Processing-level access? Do they just want a slider and a play button?

Pachube Trails.
Pachube Trails.
Usman Haque's Pachube.com released something the other day that adds another layer to the conversation about tools, data over time and maps. Pachube is a web service that allows anyone to publish any physical or virtual sensor data as a common resource. As their user base is growing, they are starting to offer more and more on-site tools to view this data. One of those is the plotting of sensor data over time related to position on a map. Via Twitter: "favourite @pachube app yet: mapping mobile feeds in realtime, w 3d datastream value time & location based graphing: http://is.gd/BjJT." Awesome.

What do you see as the potential for information visualizations, say five to ten years from now? Where is it all going?

Boris: Well... if everything is information of one sort or another, and if we continue our efforts to render all this meta information as virtualizations, then we end up with, essentially, The Matrix. (Sorry, had to say it.)

Perhaps, just as the CLI (Command Line Interface) made way for the GUI (Graphic User Interface), as we develop data visualizations to fit tasks do these visualizations then become the new metaphors for CHI (Computer-Human Interaction)?

I'm getting the sense that video game development platforms are beginning to have an impact far beyond games. What if data visualization experts like Tom and the other Stamenites got into game platforms and piped some data in, and then someone like Matt Biddulph from Dopplr piped in some workflow functionality... that could be awesome! Using the metaphors and language of game development environments and applying them to functional, interactive manipulation of information, and not just for exploration of data but actually doing things with it, is probably something that is happening already in some corporate design research studios such as Microsoft, Apple, Nokia and the like. Though I get the sense they are approaching it from the Immersive Computing Environments angle (3D operating systems, etc... the kind of stuff you see in a Steven Spielberg film.)

Tom: I think the potential for information visualizations is about three things: more graphics, more mobile, and more collaboration.

Five to ten years from now? Even modest expectations about hardware and network improvements will probably become reality. I think we can expect to add one or two zeroes to the size of the data sets that we can interactively manipulate on our desktops. On the miniature end of the scale, we'll have something close to today's desktop capabilities but in our pockets: you only need compare the performance of the iPhone or Android graphics and display with a PC from 1998 to see what I mean.

I think the move of mobile devices to use the same underlying browser technologies as desktops is huge. I think we'll see an explosion of collaborative/social infoviz now that that has happened, because there's no need for separate technologies like Java and Flash. When information visualization on the web can be designed and built by the same people as the rest of the page we'll see more thorough integration with the mainstream web and that can only be a good thing. Google Maps sets great expectations around online mapping and as designers we need to make software that does that for all kinds of data, not only maps.

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Jennifer Bove is a founder and principal at Kicker Studio in San Francisco and on the faculty of the School of Visual Art's Interaction Design MFA department in New York. She travels, a lot.
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