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Data Visualization or Data Interaction?

… or whatever we want to call it.

Yin Shanyang writes on twitter in response to my last post on vis as bidirectional channel:

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 11.18.17 AM

This comment really hits a nerve on me as I have been thinking about this issue quite a lot lately. I must confess I am no longer satisfied with the word “visualization”. And I am even less satisfied by all the other paraphernalia people like to use: data visualization, interactive visualization, information visualization, visual analytics, infographics, etc.

The reason is that I think all these words do not describe well the work I and many other people do. While visualization seems to be appropriate when the main purpose is data presentation, I don’t think it captures the value of visualization when it is used as a data sensemaking tool.

When used for this purpose interaction is crucial. Analysis looks more like a continuous loop between these steps:

  1. specify to the computer what you want to see and how (the specific visual representation)
  2. detect patterns, interpret the results and generate questions
  3. ask the computer to change the data and/or the visualization to accommodate the new question(s)
  4. assess the results … repeat …

Analytical discourse is a term I saw used in the visual analytics agenda a few years back and I think it captures very well this concept. This all interplay and discourse between the machine and the human. This is what many of us are after and I am not sure the term visualization is able to express this concept in its entirety. The value of these tools is not exclusively in the visual representation; interaction plays a major role.

This became even more apparent to me while teaching my InfoVis course this semester. I teach a lot of things about visual representation but when students come down to building software for their projects, what they are really working on is a fully-fledged user interface. They have multiple linked views, search boxes, dynamic query sliders and all the rest. It’s interactive user interface design they end up doing, not visualization. And user interface design carries a lot of additional challenges that go beyond visual representation. Sure, designing the appropriate representation is still very important but many other choices impact the final results.

For instance all my students’ projects have multiple interactive views, maybe sometime just a main visualization, a list of terms and a couple of query sliders for dynamic filtering, but how do you call that? I call that visualization but in practice it’s a complex user interface. Or a “data interface” as suggested by Yin.

One last note. While thinking about this whole idea I recalled that Jeff Heer‘s lab at UW is called Interactive Data Lab and I think he’s got it right. Interaction with the data is the main thing, visualization is the medium we use to create part of this interaction.

What do you think? Too heretic? To much of a hassle?

A few successes …

I don’t  (want to) buy the idea that it’s too hard to quantify/demonstrate impact of visualization. Yet I want more evidence/stories.

He is my very humble initial step (form your comments and twitter messages):

  • Persuasive graphics in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth
  • Hans Rosling’s explanation of world development with Gapminder
  • Florence Nightingdale’s Mortality Diagram
  • John Snow’s Cholera Map
  • Tableau having a $127M revenue in 2012 and going public
  • >50k downloads of ggplot2 in the last 4 months
  • Better diagnosis for hearth disease

What else? Please send me more!


Let’s Meet at VisWeek!

This is a short notice to all FILWD readers who are going to VisWeek 2011. I will be there the full week starting from Sat Oct 22th and I would love to meet some of you guys. There are two main events you might be interested in.

Data Visualization Blogging Dinner

If you are going to visweek it would be just awesome to spend some time together in front of a hot meal and a good drink. I’d love to see your faces in real flesh!

If you are interested (even if you are not sure to come) please sign up to this google group I just set up – Vis Blogging Dinner – VisWeek 2011 – and we’ll find a suitable place and time to spend some time together. Ok? Please sign up as soon as you can so that I will be able to reserve a place to stay.

Blogging about Data Visualization BOF

I am trying to set up together with Robert Kosara (EagerEyes) a Birds-of-Feathers during visweek to meet people interested in data visualization blogging. Everyone is welcome (bloggers, aspiring bloggers, blog readers, etc.) The meeting will be totally informal and we plan to give advice on how to blog about vis (in case you want to hear it from us of course :-) and to hear from you guys whatever idea you have on how to make data visualization blogging better/funnier/stronger/etc.

Catch me!

Apart from that we can always meet in the hotel during the week if you feel like. If you see me around and want to have a chat or share a drink or just say hi please catch me! I added a picture of myself here below so that it’s easier for you to recognize me (I hope).

If you are not going to VisWeek …

I plan to record a video from visweek at the end of each day to provide a summary and thoughts. I also plan to write more about what will happen at visweek later this week. Stay tuned!