VAST 2008 Keynote - Christian Chabot

10/22/2008; 8:50 PM

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.

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