Leaving no trail behind

Posted: September 24th, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

On a recent review of the VC database I was simply astounded with the amount of dead links in a variety of indexed projects. Worst of all was that some became completely untraceable, possibly gone forever. This was an exasperating moment. VisualComplexity.com, regardless of how insignificant it might seem in the big scheme of things, is still a compact archive of an epoch, showcasing tendencies, methods, discoveries, and fragmented insights into the modus operandi of our contemporary society. For many people searching for those lost projects, VC is not a curated starting point, but a frustrating dead end, leaving them with a slightly bitter taste in their mouth. Sure, some authors could be more organized and concerned with the documentation of their projects, but that still wouldn’t solve the issue. The main drawback we are dealing with is the inherent medium.

At the present time, we have access to countless cuneiform documents, including economic records, letters, and literary works from early Sumerian times, produced over 4,000 years ago. Many of these artifacts are essential to our understanding of the values and practices that shaped this ancient culture. Can we aspire the same longevity for our modern cultural artifacts? Most certainly not. We would be lucky if a tiny percentage of our documents lasted even a fraction of that time scale. We are so infatuated with our digital virtuosity that we are blind to its ephemeral nature. It’s curious how at this stage in civilization, when we are collecting more data like never before, in quantities that would astonish any nineteen-century researcher, we are storing it in one of the most fragile and volatile mediums, if and when we store it at all.

Yes, initiatives such as the Internet Archive are critical, but still remarkably far away from any realistic aspiration. In a captivating article by The Wall Street Journal, journalist Robert Hotz explains how “Scientists who collaborate via email, Google, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook are leaving fewer paper trails, while the information technologies that do document their accomplishments can be incomprehensible to other researchers and historians trying to read them.” As we communicate through more and more channels, our trail becomes thinner and thinner. And as time passes by, our chances of recovering precious records become ever so diminute.

Hotz provides an illustrative case on this critical challenge. When the leading evolutionary biologist William Donald Hamilton died in 2000, the British Library received a pile of his research papers, together with letters, drafts and lab notes. Among these documents were 26 cartons containing “vintage floppy computer disks, reels of 9-track magnetic tape, stacks of 80-column punch cards, optical storage cards and punched paper tapes”, some dating back to the 1960s. In order to extract many of the crucial stored information, “that could illuminate an influential life of science”, researchers at the Library had to arduously assemble a “collection of vintage computers, old tape drives and forensic data-recovery devices in a locked library sub-basement.”

I found this account extremely alarming and unsettling, particularly since it addresses a mere 40 year gap. Forty years! Now imagine the difficult task of historians in 400 years from now. We can do more and we have to. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming a memoryless generation, or even worse, the dark digital age.

VC Book is coming!

Posted: September 23rd, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

It’s now official, VC Book is moving forward in full steam! Too early to ask about the title, structure, or price. But you can subscribe to the blog’s feed or my tweets and I will keep you posted on any updates.

Libraries & Open Visualization

Posted: September 22nd, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Here are two interesting lists on open visualization libraries and software:

*Note to self: need to update my old list of graph visualization tools.

Artforms of Nature

Posted: September 6th, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Tom Beddard, who has been previously featured in VC, recently post a series of striking images generated with his Fractal Explorer and based on the outstanding work of nineteen century German biologist Ernst Haeckel. Beddard’s Fractal Explorer is a plugin for Adobe Photoshop and After Effects that allows the creation of fractals based on any chosen image. As Tom Beddard explains:

The Fractal Explorer plugin is a couple of Pixel Bender filters that will generate Mandelbrot and Julia set fractals to any power in real-time. The first filter is for standard fractal colouring whereas the second is optimised to use a technique called orbit trapping to map an image into fractal space.

You can see many of the examples generated by Beddard on his flickr set.

Observations on the Manifesto

Posted: September 3rd, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

* These are a series of observations on the original Information Visualization Manifesto. I will occasionally reiterate my points, from the manifesto and subsequent comments, for the sake of argument *

It has been great reading all the different reactions to the manifesto and witnessing the open debate within our community. I feel it’s extremely healthy and invigorating. As said before, if nothing else, I hope this will result in a positive introspection of our discipline.

The manifesto has been circulating a lot over the past few days, but I was particularly pleased to read the supportive posts from Robert Kosara (eagereyes.org), and Patricia McDonald (BBH Labs).

The manifesto introduced two different propositions: (1) a list of ten guidelines or principles, that has been for the most part consented by everyone; (2) a more controversial proposal for a stronger divide between Information Visualization and Information Art. I will therefore address these two parts separately.

The List

The list of considerations has been praised and well received by most people, but the following points have raised some concerns:

Form Follows Function

Some questioned this old maxim and considered that in the case of Information Visualization it should be rephrased to: Form follows Data. I do oppose to this interpretation. As explained in the manifesto: “Form doesn’t follow data. Data is incongruent by nature. Form follows a purpose, and in the case of Information Visualization, Form follows Revelation.” I provided the wooden chair analogy, but in a reply to one of the comments I provided a second metaphor. I think of data as the unwrapping of a recently purchased piece of IKEA furniture. Looking at all the components scattered across the floor, you cannot avoid but feeling slightly puzzled on what to do next. You can either look at the paper or embrace your creativity and generate an alternative object. But in both cases what will determine the form/shape/layout of the final piece will be the intent. Therefore, many derivations can result from this view, Form follows Intent, Form follows Purpose, etc. I simply decided to go for the most worn out, yet explicit statement - Form follows Function.

Interactivity is Key

This principle merits the reflection of us all. Jerome Cukier and David McCandless challenged the need for interactivity in Information Visualization. In a broader definition of Visualization I would certainly agree with this notion: Information can be successfully conveyed in either static or interactive mediums. However, we have to question what really sets us apart from other parallel fields such as Information Design or Information Graphics. I do believe one of the crucial benefits of Information Visualization is interactivity – which also explains why this area emerged from Computer Science and HCI. It’s this “computer-supported, interactive” visual representation of data that truly makes us different. And this unique offering “becomes imperative as the degree of complexity of the portrayed system increases”. The representation of complex networks is just an instance where interactivity should be mandatory.

The Power of Narrative

This point in particular, should have been read as a consideration, rather than a strict guideline. Nevertheless, “the question of narrative seems to lie at the heart of this Manifesto; the need to pose a specific question of the data and to weave coherent themes and stories from it.” explains Patricia McDonald. Kim Rees and Moritz Stefaner disputed well this prerequisite on every execution, particularly the type of self-made narrative that emerges from exploratory executions. And since we’re talking about analytical tools, this will be a recurrent occurrence. I like to compare this practice to a game designer who lays out an intended context, rules and narrative for the game, but then has this moment of delight when users engender their own narrative, their own path. This is intrinsic to the conception of Information Visualization as a discovery tool.

Look for Relevancy, Aspire for Knowledge, Avoid gratuitous visualizations

As Moritz Stefaner pointed out, these three principles could have easily been merged into one, since there’s a strong overlap between them. However, I do feel they’re individually significant and assertive to merit their own independent call.

Don’t Glorify Aesthetics

This principle has been very debated and since it relates closely to the second part “The Divide”, I will address it in that context.

The Divide

The proposed divide between Information Visualization and Information Art was by far the most contentious issue on the manifesto. It quickly derailed to a debate on Aesthetics versus Function and Art versus Science, and we all know how slippery these domains can be. Aesthetics is not the easiest term to define, and neither is Art. I do however look at aesthetics from a functional point of view, and to that extent I also do not appreciate the occasional discredit by the scientific community. If we decompose some of its tangible elements – color, shape, composition, symmetry – we can immediately perceive how aesthetics is an integral element in the usability and legibility of any execution in the realm of Information Visualization. But it’s not the only one.

One of the greatest qualities of Information Visualization, and certainly the main reason why I became interested in the field, is its diversity. It’s able to bring in people from all sorts of disciplines and backgrounds in a remarkably cohesive manner. I look at our practice as a dense voronoi treemap (I could not avoid using this metaphor), where many branches of knowledge come together for the common goal of revelation. This setup works well, when all elements of the equation operate in a sensible way, but when one escalates in detriment of the others, then we have a problem. And lately one end of the spectrum has been pulled in a much more sturdily way. The fallacy of Information Visualization being a conveyor of “pretty pictures” is drastically threatening the field, by undermining its goals and expectations. “We have to fight that or risk the trivialization and marginalization of visualization as an analytic tool”, asserts Robert Kosara on a recent review of the manifesto.

So what do we do at this stage? We either try to restore the balance or we acknowledge a clearer divide. I do not think we can have a convoluted multipurpose all-encompassing practice. This will be detrimental to us all.

As I stated in the manifesto, I think Information Visualization and Information Art can and should coexist, by learning from each other and cross-pollinating ideas, methods and techniques. In fact, I believe this separation is beneficial for both areas, since it frees them from inadequate concerns and aspirations. Information Art can really push the creative limits of data and in the process generate new techniques and algorithms, but also spark public discourse – one of the great qualities of Art. On the other hand, Information Visualization can mature as an analytical tool, providing a reliable and critical source of insight to many future challenges we are still to face.

We have observed a similar symbiotic process between Art and Cartography for many centuries. Several authors have written on this subject and David Woodward, in his Art & Cartography, published in 1987, describes in detail how numerous artists were influenced by cartography, and how maps themselves were hanged in walls as pieces of art. Nevertheless, both fields have always kept their independent paths and individual aspirations.

The divide between Information Visualization and Information Art is not clear-cut and there’s certainly space for a thriving middle ground. Labels can also be changed. Kosara even suggests we start using the term “Visual Analysis” as a substitute for Visualization. This is something we can certainly discuss as a community, and there are many benefits to do so. Once we all agree on what we do, it will be easier for others to recognize the goals and boundaries of our growing discipline.

* You’re welcomed to continue the discussion here, or add your comment to the original post on the manifesto *