Can we speak of Vis 2.0? … Some patterns

Since the term Web 2.0 was born, a number of tangential fields have also utilized the same terminology to indicate how they have been shaped by it. Notable examples are: Business 2.0, Enterprise 2.0 and even Bubble 2.0! :-).
At the risk of seeming a hype follower, here I ask the question: can we speak of Vis 2.0?
[See the classic Web 2.0 article by Tim O’Reilly to learn more about it]
When I think of Vis 2.0, my intent is to group all the recent visualizations I have seen appearing on the web under a single label. I have the strong feeling that something new is really happening and that the whole domain of visualization is being transformed by the forces acting on the web. Its future shape will depend a lot on it. Think about it: even the sole thing that a visualization, once it is designed and developed, can instantly be made public and potentially reach millions of people is a revolution in itself!
Following the tradition of defining Web 2.0 by the observed new patterns vs. old ones, here I provide my personal list of patterns:

  • Web vs. Desktop: The application is distributed over the web and accessible through a simple web browser. No installation, no configuration, no hassle.
  • Communication vs. Exploration (and Discovery): The traditional open-ended task explore and “discover the unexpected” is somewhat subverted. The vast majority of Vis 2.0 applications are meant to communicate something that cannot be seen in raw data but that when visualized is quite obvious to understand. Sure, it is clear that discovery and exploration are still attractive and can be largely encouraged, nonetheless this does not seem to be the driving force anymore. In addition, many tools seems to have a clearer goal, a direct connection between task and tool. Traditional InfoVis applications, conversely, have always suffered this limitation of being able to do anything and nothing a the same time.
  • Many and Diverse vs. Single and Specialized User Base: Users come from many different sources with a whole spectrum of interests an goals (often curiosity). The visualization is there ready to be observed and used in way that could not be anticipated by its designer. Compare this to the traditional data analyst, using a very technical tool and spending hours alone figuring out what’s in the data. Some systems also allow collaboration and discussion, which is another revolution. The user is not alone and the task is never fully ended. People discuss around a topic aided by visualizations. It’s the full power of the collective.
  • Small and Targeted vs. Large and General Purpose: If we consider the nature of the the tool we have an opposite trend. If the audience is generic and diverse, the tools are small and specific. Forget monolithic desktop applications connected to huge enterprise data warehouses issuing complex queries to data cubes. Here we have thin tools with a single and often very simple and clear purpose, which becomes obvious at first sight. The interaction is often limited, what you see is really the only thing you get, but the purpose is clear. Nothing less, nothing more.
  • Shallow vs. Deep Interaction: The tools appearing on the web often employ very limited interaction techniques. In fact, the tool is not mean to be used for complex tasks, few clicks and the job is done.
  • Funny and Empathic vs. Cold and Technical: Many of the realizations on the web bring a lot more emotional involvement compared to the traditional tools. This is somewhat paradoxical if we consider the power of visualization to bring not only information but also emotion. The desire to convey emotions is so evident in certain web visualizations that would be an error to consider only as sporadic events (see Iraq War Coalition Fatalities for an excellent example).
  • Maps and Charts vs. Fancy Visualizations: A very large segment of web visualizations is realized with maps and simple charts like: bar charts, line graphs, sparklines, etc. It’s true that there are also many “esoteric” designs out there but they seem to cover the less useful portion of applications. Traditional InfoVis has instead a clear bias towards creating always new visual designs, often completely useless. This is a very personal consideration, but I strongly believe that we yet have to discover the full potential of simple charts when more clever interaction schemes are attached to them.
  • Scripting and XML vs. Java and DBMS: I’m getting a bit technical here, however, even in terms of programming models there are some new trends. Web visualizations are realized with lightweight programming models using technologies like: JavaScript and Flex for the UI and remote and asynchronous data access with XML, JASON and similar technologies. Traditional visualizations, realized for desktop environments are realized with more solid languages like Java and similar and often retrieve data from complex DBMS.

One thing I want to clarify is that I’m not necessarily assigning a positive or negative value to these new trends. In fact, I believe there are good and bad things about them.
As an example, I have already said before in this blog that I’m not very excited by the proliferation of badly designed, too simplistic and often useless visualizations on the web. But, it is also true that they have greatly helped spread the word about visualization as an interesting field.
Before closing this post I want to provide a list of examples of Vis 2.0 tools that I consider really great:
we feel fine: for its great emotional value
crimespotting: for its usefulness and advanced interaction
hindsight: for its beauty
hotpads: for their heatmaps
google finance: for its F+C interaction
finviz: for its complexity and simplicity at the same time
That’s all folks. I hope you will have something to say about this.

3 thoughts on “Can we speak of Vis 2.0? … Some patterns

  1. Michal Migurski

    Great post – I think the core of the distinction boils down to your third point: diversity vs. specialization. What I’ve seen happen to visualization over the past half decade or so is that its become accessible and interesting to a wide range of people beyond the scientists and engineers traditionally invested in its funding, development, and use. Through our own work at Stamen, we’re taking joyrides through data sets that might be otherwise ignored by the academic or industrial communities, like real estate (the bottom left corner of your illustration) and social interaction on busy websites. A lot of new people are developing visual literacy through exposure to maps, plots, and interactive applications. Some of your other points (simpler languages, empathy, maps, and the web) are I think outgrowths of this new diversity.

  2. Registered User

    Hi Michal,
    Thanks for you comment.
    Yeah … you are probably right all these patterns can be seen as the consequence of diversity vs. specialization, even if it is not easy to track down the forces and causes that generated this shift.
    As you point out, I think that another big change is that the data you see appearing in vis 2.0 wouldn’t event be considered as interesting in the traditional community.
    Another open point I have in mind is how the scientific community (e.g., people behind research labs and conferences like InfoVis Symposium) is going to deal with it. So far, I don’t see what is happening on the web at all reflected in scientific venues (apart from Many Eyes who created much hype at the last InfoVis).
    This is somewhat critical from my point of view since I am from academia. Even if this does not happen only to visualization, often I have the feeling that a quite large chunk of innovation comes more from the free work of people and small companies than from universities and research labs. But maybe (why not?) this is not a big problem at all … ?!

  3. Daniele Galiffa

    I think Enrico got the point.
    The Vis2.0 ecosystem is now real and ready to evolve.
    I also think that social infovis services (like Many Eyes, Gapminder, etc…) really opened the road also to the evolution of web based visualization.
    On the tech side, I could also say that finally ActionScript has become a mature technology that really helped the growth of web based infovis services.
    Anyway, the future of vis2.0 services is just started ;)


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