Even in the beginning of January this might be one of the funniest things we'll see this year.
This year the VAST 2008 keynote was delivered by Christian Chabot, CEO of Tableau Software. The main item on the agenda was to proof that Information Visualization is about to explode in popularity. Explode along the lines of the way Adobe products like Photoshop and Acrobat exploded. Explode in a sense that anyone who processes data, from huge companies, to small companies, to Joe the plumber, will be using visual analytic software.
Chabot made some very strong, at times ironic, at times provocative, comments about the state of information visualization. The main focus was about visualization in the industry, where his product is targeted. He showed some neat demos using Tableau, mainly stressing the simplicity of using a “traditional” visualization and interacting with it to get more information.
The approach he took was to try and dispel some strong myths about information visualization. One such myth was that people use information visualization to find hidden patterns in data. He said that the number 1 reason why people buy Tableau is to save time.
When an analyst uses a visualization to answer a question he typically ends up with another question. The users must then have the ability to answer that new question by either creating a new visualization or refining the original visualization. Since it’s so easy to create, or refine a new visualization in tableau, this alleviates the need to create a single complex visualization.
Another key point was that "Information Visualization is NOT as difficult much as you think". Most problems people are trying to solve on a daily basis can be easily solved by traditional visualizations. I tend to agree with this however that does not mean that we shouldn't try to solve bigger problems.
Some of the comments and argument made by Chabot were quite provocative. I found it quite strange that nobody from the InfoVis audience challenged what he said. I was expecting some sort of reaction which never came.
I cannot help but notice the usual split between industry and academics. It's something that always interests me a lot since I’m in sitting in between the two corners. At one extreme of the spectrum I see purely academic people trying to display a million node graph, without any practical application use. At the other extreme somebody is saying, information visualization is easy, just make it easily accessible and people will use it.
I think one of the nice things about the VisWeek conference is that it brings these two extremes and everything in between in a single room. I believe this is very beneficial for the overall community, both the academic community and industry. There is a huge amount of great work being done in the research community that can be exploited by industry, for the benefit of both parties.
I think one of the strengths of Tableau was that it built on a very solid foundation of Information Visualization, design and usability principles that were based on research. To this effect several papers have been published in this same conference about Tableau. I think more people and companies can benefit from being bridges between academic research and the industry.
Hopefully Chabot will be proved right in his prediction that Tableau will be the new Acrobat in the next 5 to 10 years. From personal experience with using the product, I think if there’s a product out there that is on the cusp of achieving this, then that product is in fact Tableau.
These are some of the interesting points discussed during events I attended. They’re a bit sketchy as they’re meant more as reminders than full blown posts.
- Scatterplot Matrix Navigation (Niklas Elmqvist et al)
- This paper was the winner of the best paper award. I think it might resurrect some interest with matrix scatterplots, and I see potential of using concepts from here in my work. I love matrix views, so needless to say this was a very interesting take on it. Need to look into the paper in further detail though.
- Interaction Costs of InfoVis (Heidi Lam)
- Review of user studies related to interaction costs. Made some valid points on the importance of considering interaction features when evaluating systems. Importance of interaction not being a cost but an aid. Something else to think about during user studies.
- Color in Information Displays (Maureen Stone)
- Tutorial on usage of colour in displays. Reiteration and emphasis on Tufte's principle to DO NO HARM with color. Presented two interesting cases studies on how colour was designed for Tableau and voting Kiosks. The subtle details of the design dependent on the application requirements were well explained in the case studies. Interesting point to follow-up on was the relationship of colour and language. Other points:-
- VAST Challenge Participants discussion (Georges Grinstein, Catherine Plaisant, Mark Whiting et al)
- Importance of creating data sets with ground truth.
- Possibility of automatically judging analytical tasks.
- Relevance of this area to an InfoVis Grand Challenge.
Yesterday was my first day, and also the first time at the VisWeek conference. Needless to say I was a bit overwhelmed by everything going on around, landing in a hotel surrounded by people I was in awe of (some of them are real humans), not knowing anybody and feeling like a Lilliputian amongst giants.
In the evening there was a discussion session about the VAST Challenge from all the participating teams (73 in total). This was the event I was most looking forward to, and the event I was hoping to get to meet some interesting people and make some new friends in the InfoVis community. So we sat down for the discussion and after a brief introduction the participants started making their comments. Comments from the participants started flying out like submachine gun fire, and the analogy isn't entirely out of place. It seemed that all anybody from the audience had to say was criticise the organisers.
I remember that when I was tackling the challenge, I found the dataset interesting, challenging and appreciated the work involved in generating it. Sitting there amongst the audience hearing all these negative things being thrown at the organisers, I almost felt that they were offending me. I went home thinking what a bunch of proud, arrogant, people. Is this the community I want to make part of?
I woke up this morning and I was still thinking about this. (It's 6am when I'm writing this). This morning though, maybe because of the caffeine dose, I started rationalizing. I thought, well, maybe a community needs critics. Maybe to improve something and make it better next year, there have to be people who criticise. Some of the criticism was valid, when you think of it rationally and leave your personal emotions behind. Needless to say though that some of the criticism was not constructive at all and was only a big dick wiggling exercise.
Thinking about it, I think critics do play a role in a community. Their suggestions can help improve the product each year, and I think that the VAST Challenge is a living proof of this, considering the great progress the challenge made since it started.
Having said this, being constructive, offering suggestions, and adding some sugar coating around the negative comments, doesn't hurt either. Your professional peers were involved in this work, so having some tact and showing appreciation is due. I'm sure that the vast majority of the people do appreciate but letting this appreciation be known is no harm.
Hopefully someday I will be up there doing something for the community, and I will be the one who gets criticised. When that day comes I hope to remember this first experience, and realise that criticism can be important for improving even though it can hurt. There are also people who do appreciate the work and think it's great, but usually these are the quiet ones.
While eating my fish & chips I found this quote from the article "What reading Tufte won't teach you":-
Give the user the chance to ask for forgiveness rather than forcing them to confirm a (destructive) action. Gmail and other web applications are pioneering this one. Rather than asking something like “Are you sure you want to delete this conversation?” they provide a success notification “The conversation has been deleted” with an “undo” button next to it. The insight here is that, although the application must provide a way to immediately abort a destructive action like this, 99% of the time, users actually intended to perform the destructive action. That should be the easy, one-click case, and aborting the destructive action should be the rarer, two-click case.
If the application pesters users with a confirmation dialog for destructive actions, users memorize a multi-step destructive command: click delete, then click OK — and when they accidentally delete the wrong thing, they miss the chance to abort. Many, many applications are guilty of this.
This has been sitting in my inbox for quite a while, but it ties in perfectly with the IBM LanguageWare project mentioned of the previous post.
The (DERI) is publishing over 10 years of forum posts, from the busiest Irish forum (boards.ie). There are over 9 million documents, worth about 50 gigabytes of disk space in RDF/XML format. All you have to do to be eligible for the prize is to create something interesting with the data.
The 1st prize is a $4000 Amazon voucher, 2nd prize $2000 and 3rd prize $1000.
More information on the competition on the SIOC wiki.