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  4 Release 2.0 Issue 2.0.4, August 2007

  “While many information visualizations are amazing,

fun, and often quite useful, some of them promise to

improve society. They may help us change our minds,

collaborate, make better decisions, and re-knit a social

fabric that has frayed badly over time.”

  Jerry Michalski, from The Implications of Visual Literacy, page 6

  Release 2.0 Issue 2.0.4, August 2007

  Contents Published six times a year by O’Reilly Media, Inc., 1005 Gravenstein Highway North,

  Sebastopol, CA 95472

  This newsletter covers the world of information technology and the Internet — and the business and societal issues they raise.


   executive editor Tim O’Reilly




  Jimmy Guterman publisher Sara Winge


   art director Mark Paglietti



  production design


  Drew Barton copy editor Laurel Ruma contributing writers

   Jerry Michalski Peter Morville David Weinberger




  © 2007, O’Reilly Media, Inc.

   All rights reserved. No material in this publication may be reproduced without prior written permission; however, we gladly arrange for reprints, bulk orders, or site licenses. Individual subscriptions cost $495 per year. 70557 subscription information Release 2.0 PO Box 17046 North Hollywood, CA 91615-9588 customer service 1.800.889.8969 1.707.827.7019

  Jimmy Guterman is editor of Release 2.0 and editorial director of O’Reilly’s Radar group. You can reach him at

  Information Visualization: The State of the Art

Do you want to understand what an avalanche of data is trying to show you? Chance are you have to find a clever way to look at it

  If you spend much of your time in meetings, chances are you’ve been confronted with a slide that attempts to tell a story. It might look something like this: In Peter Norvig’s witty reduction of Lincoln’s thrilling Gettysburg Address to a soporific PowerPoint deck, he illuminates how the wrong image (in this case, a chart representation of “four score and seven years ago”) can eliminate all mean- ing and style from the presentation of information. And the examples we see in corporate conference rooms now are less funny but just as useless.

  One of the few positive side effects of this era’s information overload is that we’ve found some new and useful ways to organize the avalanche of information that drops onto us every day. Roughly a quarter century after the publication of

  Edward R. Tufte’s instant classic, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,

  Information visualizations

  we’re still in the early stages of learning how displaying complex data in clever, clarifying ways can increase understanding and improve resulting decisions.

  are not about pretty pictures.

  Information visualizations are not about pretty pictures. Indeed, the ones

  Indeed, the ones that are

  that are most decorative are often the ones that yield the least useful informa- tion to share and act on. Much of making smart business decisions is deciding

  most decorative are often

  which data sources are trustworthy and which visualizations of those data sources tell stories that clarify and reveal what’s behind the always-moving, Matrix-like

  the ones that yield the least

  walls of numbers. Achieving visual literacy helps business people decide which useful information. stories and believable and make better decisions.

  In this issue of Release 2.0, our all-star lineup examines the state of information visualization, how it got here, and where it might be going. Jerry Michalski returns to this newsletter after a much-too-long absence. He points to some of the most probing examples of information visualization nowadays, details his own decade-long involvement with one InfoVis program, senses some early signals on how these disparate visualizations might one day interoperate, and delivers his own wish list for the future. (It’s an article meant to be clicked on, so you may prefer to read the PDF version that comes with your subscription)

  Peter Morville, author of Ambient Findability, also published by O’Reilly, warns us not to get carried away with today’s InfoVis tools. And, finally, David Weinberger, author of Everything Is Miscellaneous, reminds us that sometimes (think: Gettysburg Address) words may be all you need to make your point.

  And then we look at the numbers to see if the convention wisdom about Microsoft Vista adoption is based in external reality. Are you using information visualization tools? Have you found ways to dig out from the information avalanche? Please join us on the O’Reilly Radar blog, n n at, as we continue the conversation.


Release 2.0.4 August 2007 The Implications of Visual Literacy Jerry Michalski

The Implications of Visual Literacy They’re everywhere. Where are the best ones

  Jerry Michalski helps companies develop strategies that build relationships with their and what do they do? customers as well as among their employees.

  A longtime technology industry analyst, he by Jerry Michalski is best-known in these parts as an editor for Esther Dyson’s Release 1.0. He can be reached

  If you’re a fan of visualization, these are fun times. Elegant, useful visualizations via . abound online.

  Mash Google Maps together with Craigslist’s housing listings and you get HousingMaps ( Add Twitter tweets (short mes- sages) to some geocoding information and a map, and you get Twittervision (, which animates tweets popping up around the globe as they happen.

  Want to see how stories plop into Digg, as they plop? Try Stack from Digg Labs and Stamen Design ( Which candidates are where on the campaign trail and what did they just say? Check Map the Candidates (http:// Want to track where all the man-made satellites are now in orbit? Go to NASA’s 3D tracker ( 3D/JTrack3D.html) and give the display a little tug, to rotate it.

  Twittervison superimposes Twitter messages on a map in either 2D or 3D Release 2.0.4 August 2007 The Implications of Visual Literacy Jerry Michalski The Baby Name Wizard NameVoyager will let you know just how mundane the name you picked really is, or isn’t.

  University of Maryland’s Ben Shneiderman invented “treemaps” years ago, but Martin Wattenberg’s Map of the Market ( marketmap/) made them popular as “heatmaps.” Wattenberg also scored some points for visualization with the Baby Name Wizard NameVoyager (http://baby, which accompanies and enriches his wife Laura’s book. Wattenberg is now at IBM, part of the amazing Many Eyes project (, where participants upload datasets and collaborate on their analyses. Social network services such as Facebook and MySpace are hot, as are social

  Some visualizations are

  network mapping applications such as Fidg’t (, which helps you see what your friends’ interests are; PieSpy (http://www.jibble. designed to get people to org/piespy/), which infers who is talking with whom from listening in on Internet change their opinions. Relay Chat conversations; and Valdis Krebs’ InFlow ( html), which performs similar analyses on email data and Amazon purchase data.

  You could go to Facebook and “friend” Episcopalian Bishop Marc Andrus, who just added a social-network visualization app called Friend Wheel to his

  Some information

  Facebook page (so I did, too, of course). Is this too much information from a

  visualizations just make a spiritual leader? You decide.

  Then there are social analysis tools, where it’s not the network that’s social,

  point, tell longer stories, or

  but the method of analysis and discussion. With these tools, which include Swivel ( and Visualization Lab’s (http://vis.

  weave together multiple, participants can compare, discuss and annotate data-driven visualizations built around census data. I’ll return to this social points. More and more are sub-genre shortly.

  using multiple media.

  The examples I’ve cited so far are data-driven. There’s another important category of visualizations that are illustrative, based on concepts or metaphors. Some just make a point, some tell longer stories, weaving together multiple points. Their creators use many media, from animations (remember JibJab and The Meatrix?, to videos, comics, storyboards, presentations (for the equivalent of PowerPoint on the Web, see SlideShare,, screencasts, serious games, flipbooks, photo essays, and Java applets. Want to talk alongside your data the way weather forecasters talk to their maps? Watch a GapCast from GapMinder (http://www. Want a nice how-to video? Head to Instructables ( (O’Reilly is an investor in Instructables).

  Among the many inspirations for these projects are Edward R. Tufte, the noted expert in packing many dimensions of data into one display, and Muriel Cooper, whose research into text sizing you’ll recognize every time you see a tagcloud.

  That’s just a taste of what’s available. For an impressive compendium of visualizations, visit ( For a more humorous take, check out the Periodic Table of Visualization Methods ( from the Visual Literacy site. Release 2.0.4 August 2007 The Implications of Visual Literacy Jerry Michalski More than fun

  Combine open databases

  While many of these examples are amazing, fun, and often quite useful, some of

  with engaging information

  them promise to improve society. They may help us change our minds, collabo- rate, make better decisions and re-knit the social fabric that has frayed badly

  visualizations and you can over time.

  For example, some visualizations are designed to get people to change their

  change how governance

  opinions. Remember Ben Cohen’s Oreo histogram about military spending during works. the last election cycle (see ? Notable among these eye-opening opinion-shifters are Ingo Gunther’s World Processor (, which maps statistics onto the globe (e.g., violence, water reserves, debt, per-capita income), and Bruce Mau’s Massive Change (http://, which uses a wide variety of techniques and media in physical installations to make palpable the size and scale of pressing global issues.

  But those visualizations are still one-way: An expert creates a compelling map or story, then sends it into the world. Perhaps more interesting are visualization tools that improve discussions among peers in order to make better decisions. Tools like these help us rethink important concepts such as governance and democracy. The use of visualization in governance may shift over time from a view of visualizations as end products to the process of visualization as central to finding common ground and making the decisions themselves. To paraphrase Martin Eppler of Visual Literacy, our focus will move from visualizations to visualizing.

  One sub-genre of discussion aids offers argumentation mapping. These tools help groups draw out the logic of an argument, showing which points support the premise being put forth and which undermine it. Examples include Let’s Focus (, Compendium (, with roots back to Jeff Conklin’s gIBIS, TruthMapping (, and Rationale (

  Another sub-genre, open databases coupled with analytic tools, is changing how governance works. At the very local level, communities are mapping lot and tract information against crime and health data and coming up with data- driven solutions to thorny problems that broad-brush national strategies often fail to address.

  At a national level, watchdog groups such as the Sunlight Foundation ( are improving the oversight of elected officials. The Foundation’s Mashup Lab created Popup Politicians (http://, a useful Javascript widget that offers

  The Sunlight Foundation’s Visualizing Earmarks shows clearly what so many have sought to keep hidden.

  background information on politicians in context, and Visualizing Earmarks (, which uses the Many Eyes analytic platform to map earmarked budget funds to the politicians who created them.

  Many Eyes,, Swivel, and similar tools hold the promise of broader, more democratic participation, the way blogging brought more people into writing, digital cameras and photo-sharing sites broadened photographers’ reach, and inexpensive video cameras plus YouTube let practically anyone generate movies.

  Some of the most compelling socially constructed visualizations aren’t analytic, but rather cartographic. People are uploading GPS and geocoded data to map- ping services and turning out useful maps of race routes, graffiti waves, and favorite restaurants. Google has been aggressive in adding capabilities to its Maps and Earth offerings to make such customizations easier and more powerful. Microsoft and Yahoo are hot on its heels. With luck, we’re entering an era of critical, social thinking. Release 2.0.4 August 2007 The Implications of Visual Literacy Jerry Michalski

  The question of multimedia literacy pops up often as underlying technolo-

  We haven’t yet figured out

  gies change. Once it was experimental films with multiple plot lines; today it’s


how to detect and defuse multitasking Millennials who can listen to music, download movies, chat with

six friends, play World of Warcraft, and still finish their homework. Or claim to. filter out all the demagogues.

  Yet I don’t think that the new literacy is this form of continuous-partial- attention-driven ADD. It has more to do with the reintegration of dialogue, images, analysis and collaboration.

Remember your first PowerPoint?

  A wide variety of visualizations are in everyday use. To understand the expressive variety, check out the taxonomy of types of visualization that Bob Horn offers in Visual Language. Visualizations are becoming commonplace in business settings. Graphic facilitators make visual records of what happens in meetings and confer- ences. Consulting firms such as Dynamic Diagrams and XPLANE help organzations make visual sense of complex systems or product offers. Oculus (http://www. sells a suite of business data visualization tools.

  Knowing which type of visualization to use, and when, remains more of an art than a science, but we’re getting better at it, much as we learned not to mix every font available in early word-processed documents, not to use eight-point type on PowerPoint slides, and not to use <Blink> tags on Web pages. Now those things are received wisdom, embarrassing gaffes when witnessed anew.

  Don’t be fooled into thinking better visualizations of rational decision-making will make everything go smoother and help the best decisions rise to the top. We clearly haven’t figured out how to detect and defuse demagogues. We’re early in the process of mastering this new-yet-old visual vocabulary. The tools don’t inter- operateisual literacy is not widespread. We’re also still discovering how best to discuss issues collaboratively, with an online record of what trans- pired. Just because the Web has the memory of an elephant doesn’t mean it’s remembering what’s most useful. Turning random wanderings into memorable insights is crucial.

  Perhaps sunlight is the best disinfectant, and increasing transparency coupled n n with better tools and collective intelligence will improve our lot. Release 2.0.4 August 2007 What I’ve Learned from My Brain Jerry Michalski What I’ve Learned from My Brain Thoughts after a decade inside an information visualization program by Jerry Michalski

  I’ve been using a concept-mapping application called PersonalBrain (http:// for a decade. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely improved my life. I remember vividly the demonstration that Harlan Hugh, its inventor, gave me during our first briefing back in December 1997. (Disclosure: I have since become an advisor to the company.)

  The author’s ‘Brain.’

  TheBrain showed up at a serendipitous moment: I was already halfway through writing an issue of this newsletter (well, its precursor) titled If Links Could Talk. I wasn’t looking for visualizations as much as for ways to store and associate im- portant URLs (Web links), but many of the applications I covered—Inspiration, Mind Manager, Semio, and Perspecta—were highly visual. TheBrain ended up as the star of the issue.

  Take a look at my Brain. It’s online, as a Java applet (follow the “my brain” link on Even though what you see there is different from what I use daily, your seeing it makes it easier for me to describe what I’ve learned.

  Looking back on 10 years of using PersonalBrain, compiling more than 83,000 entries or “Thoughts,” many insights jump out at me, on topics ranging from software design to human memory, local structure, and what role artificial intelligence ought to play in our software. Here are some of the top aha moments.

  Convenience. In 2002 I blogged the “Law of Convenience” (http://www.freelists.

  org/archives/sociate-talk/08-2002/msg00002.html), which states that “every ad- ditional step that stands between people’s desires and the fulfillment of those desires greatly decreases the likelihood that they will undertake the activity.” It takes less than a minute for me to add something to my Brain, then five seconds

  Release 2.0.4 August 2007 What I’ve Learned from My Brain Jerry Michalski

  to find it again. If I had to fill out 10 fields in a database form to enter a Thought, I

  I fully expect some day would have lost my enthusiasm long ago. The usability tradeoff is speed vs. depth.

  Speed wins. The key is to get as much depth as possible, swiftly.

  someone will psycholoanalyze Appropriation. TheBrain’s very plastic structure allowed me to appropriate it me by doing a content analysis

  to my own purposes. I created clichés that I use to this day to express structures such as company ecosystems: their products, their principals, their industry cat-

  of my preferred system of

  egories (and therefore competitors), and their service relationships with PR agencies, funders, and law firms. This inventive process greatly increased my

  information visualization.

  desire to use the tool. Plus, I can traverse these links with a speed and flexibility no database can match.

  Memory. Every time I add new thoughts to my Brain, I look at existing

  thoughts, refreshing those neural pathways in my physical brain. This turns out to be an unexpectedly important behavior. It’s like using flash cards, only better and more fun. I now remember more details than before, because I’m always revisiting different parts of my Brain. I remember more authors, more companies, more of everything I’ve cared to store in my Brain.

  Memory aids. This useful use pattern gives me a strong point of view on a

  related issue: how might artificial intelligence be best adapted to this overall user experience? I’d put AI to work making it easier to create richly linked spaces. I don’t want AI to take over the full job of weaving these networks of memory. If the AI does this work all on its own, automagically, your own memory doesn’t get the workout, the exposure, the tastes of old and new ideas that refresh existing paths and help you create hybrid new ideas.

  What I would like, however, is to fold a semantic web into my network of thoughts. If I add a book to my Brain, for example, it would be useful to have all the added power that semantics would bring.

  When I hear talk of uploading human minds into the network or other futur- istic fantasies, I realize I’ve already gone farther than most in this direction. I fully expect some day someone will psychoanalyze me by doing a content analysis of my Brain. Certainly they could detect my political bent from a cursory examination.

  Local structure. Another virtue of TheBrain’s plasticity is that every screenful

  has local structure. It makes sense locally, even though a few clicks away things might look very different. It’s the same way the Web works when you click from one site to another: your brain sees the context switch, then begins to make sense of the new site. Each has functional local structure, without needing to follow a centralized plan. Plasticity enriches diversity.

  Name spaces. One of the things that has made my Brain useful is my consis- I’d have a hard time using

  tency in naming its Thoughts. This has made me think of the relationship between several name spaces that are important to me: my Brain’s, the wikis I use (each of

  TheBrain if I had to agree

  which has its own page name space), and semantic tag name spaces (again, each

  with others on how to

  of which is separate from the others, as is separate from Flickr). I’m still chewing on this one.

  name what I put in it. But The Global Brain. Six or seven years ago, I was trying out www.MyFamily.

  com, a genealogy site. As I entered family members and read up on how the

  the result would be more

  site works, I realized that at some point one of the family members I would en- ter and verify (birth, death, other records) would already be in the database, powerful. added by someone else. The thought gave me a little thrill, because I would be clicking into the larger tree of humanity.

  I projected that idea to my use of TheBrain, even though the Personal version has no interpersonal capabilities whatsoever. I thought: what happens when I can connect my Brain to someone else’s, linking us in ways that connect our vari- ous areas of expertise? If my own use of PersonalBrain was like a baby making neural connections, then many people weaving such links together would be a way to wire a Global Brain.

  The Social Brain. The version of TheBrain I’ve never used is the company’s

  multi-user iteration, which is marketed to call centers. As I mentioned, one of the things I love most about using TheBrain is appropriating it to my own purposes. I’d have a hard time using a Brain if I had to agree with others on naming new thoughts, for example. But if I could develop my own brain in a social context— if I could snap back to a view that gave me only the Thoughts that I’d entered— I would happily comingle my Brain with others’. The result would be more n n powerful.

  Release 2.0.4 August 2007 Release 2.0.4 August 2007 Improving the Interoperability Jerry Michalski Of Online Visualizations Improving the Interoperability of Online Visualizations What if there were a way to connect all these islands? by Jerry Michalski Not long after feasting on the hundreds of visualizations at http://VisualComplexity.

  The goal is to define an

  com, I wondered: why are all these visualizations disconnected? Why can’t data from one feed the next? Why can’t I tell a story linking one to another, or add

  environment within which a

  annotations to them in turn? How might we connect them so they can work

  rich variety of visualizations

  together? I can imagine various ways that interoperability might play out. One simple way

  can coexist, but which allows

  is the mere juxtaposition of different visualizations. Show me the pie chart of family expenses in Ghana next to the histogram of social program expenditures over time,

  for easy connections to occur

  for example. What if I would like to comment on both, to annotate them?

The same Web 2.0 properties that make mashups easy can help here, but their between them

  limits are reached quickly. Although APIs and RSS feeds are extremely useful, even the more advanced features of HTML and CSS today can’t match the visual flexi- bility and power of Adobe’s Flash or Sun’s Java (and Microsoft’s new Silverlight). Alas, these latter environments typically lead to closed applications. Yet there is progress. Several of the sites I mentioned in the lead article shine here, so I’ll use them as examples.

  The goal is to define an environment within which a rich variety of visualiza- tions can coexist, but which allows for easy connections to occur between them. So, let’s address three levels of interoperability: application, data, and social.

Application interoperability

  How would you assemble a narrative thread that ties together a bar chart from one site, several pages from an online slide show at another, and a video from yet a third site? The baling-wire-and-twine way is to write some prose in a blog entry or Web essay, then salt the entry with links to the various visualizations. It’s not elegant and it doesn’t help make the point much.

  What if the working environment, the platform atop which we built applica- tions and illustrations, allowed us to link things together internally the way Gliffy lets you chain together Web graphics (, and the end prod- uct could look as elegant as one of Scott McCloud’s sequential art pieces created for the Web ( ? Don’t hold your breath for such a system. It’s not in development, as far as I know.

  Today there isn’t that much application interoperability for visualization applications, beyond data feeds and occasional published APIs.

  Rebecca Xiong’s WebFan visualizes the activity at Web-based message boards.

Data interoperability

  The news is better on the data front. Sites such as Swivel and Many Eyes encourage visitors to upload data, blend it with other data, and plot the results. Others are coming. For some time, it will be easier to pour datasets into and out of these sites than to connect the sites directly to one another, but that won’t be too far behind.

  One of the major hurdles to strong data interoperability lies not in the tech- nical data-interchange standards, but instead in the consistency of the nomen- clature used to describe the data. If one dataset represents data collected at the end of each period and the other’s data is collected at the beginning, plotting the two together may introduce artificial lag effects. If “customer” in one dataset means paid customers and in the next means those active in the last year, you’re not comparing precisely similar things. Data hygiene is essential. Release 2.0.4 August 2007 Release 2.0.4 August 2007 Improving the Interoperability Jerry Michalski Of Online Visualizations

  Much of information visualization is bringing together multiple data sets to see what you’ll find.

  Of course, without data in the first place, hygiene is pointless. For years, Carl Malamud has been pulling data that ought to be public into the public view. One of his early efforts was to turn the SEC’s database of filings, available then for $1 a page, into a public resource known as EDGAR ( wiki/EDGAR). More recently, he convinced C-SPAN to release much more of the video it captures into the public sphere.

  Malamud’s latest project is a sort of data conservancy ourages visitors to purchase newly available materials once, thus funding their placement into the public domain.

  There are a few other major data collection projects, notably the Internet Archive (, OurMedia (, Google Base (, and Metaweb’s Freebase (http://www.freebase. com). Each of these organizations uses a different set of benefits and capabilities to attract content. Social interoperability If these advanced projects

  The Visualization Lab’s prototype is a nice example of social interaction

  had appeared sooner, their

  around data. In it, participants can add markups to the charts, link those mark- ups to their comments, and essentially conduct informed discussions around

  features might have been the analytic evidence.

  One unexpected hurdle to smooth social interoperability is cultural differ-

  baked directly into our

  ences in interpreting visual cues. Martin Eppler of Visual Literacy recently studied computer operating systems. students from Cambridge University and a Chinese university, and found their perceptual styles markedly different.

  The desire to collaborate over visual artifacts quickly crosses into a part of the old groupware space that has not been subsumed by the moniker “social media.” It’s the screensharing and collaborative annotation tools that have mostly survived in the market as paid offers, including WebEx, GoToMyPC, Breeze, and Glance. And even these are mostly playing what’s on one screen for others, rather than actually linking the contents of the screens in useful ways.

  It’s unfortunate that such features aren’t simply baked into the operating system, or part of the browser architecture. While it is true that Windows and Apple’s OS X each have some of these features, cross-platform compatibility is poor. In an era when operating systems are less and less important, this feature gap should dwindle in significance. If advanced projects such as Squeak (http:// and Croquet ( had propagated sooner and more broadly, we might all have these features now. In these late- binding, distributed environments, collaborative tools are either built in already or easy enough to instantiate and make available to all present.

  Unfortunately, we remain trapped in operating systems, office suites, and application development tools that progress at a glacial pace. Nevertheless, the pace with which new, useful visualization sites and applications are emerging is n n promising. Enough enterprising minds care about this space to fill the gaps. Release 2.0.4 August 2007 Visualizing Forward Jerry Michalski Visualizing Forward Notes on where the art may be going by Jerry Michalski

  What paths might information visualizations take as they become more pervasive?

  The most forward-looking Let’s explore a few. InfoVis shops are choosing

  The first path is pragmatic

exploratory projects over HousingMaps is intuitive and cool, but it’s far from finished. What if you took

  a home-search application all the way forward? What if the goal was to make task-specific ones. it useful for people looking for a place to live? What else might it do? I know n what I’d want: n On the map, hide neighborhoods I don’t like; highlight streets I love n Set alerts so I get an SMS notice when a property is available on a street I love n Hide properties I’ve checked out but don’t like

  Connect photos of properties I take and upload to Flickr with the right prop- n erties in HousingMaps n Same for videos n Let me annotate all the above, so I can remember notable features and flaws n Manage a simple decision-support table with properties and variables Help me collect data on the variables, populate the table and narrow down n the choices Invite friends (privately) to see the resulting maps/pictures/table, then dis- n cuss them with me n Screen-share all the above as I talk with my friends or real estate agent Enable my mobile phone to become a neighborhood survey instrument, capturing location, images and data as I move around places I like (eg., this n street’s a 7; that one’s a 10! let’s make an unsolicited offer on that place!)

  Turn my car’s in-dash navigation system into a command center for the house hunt Many of these features could be achieved easily, the way Paul Rademacher origi- nally created HousingMaps from amazingly few lines of JavaScript. Others would take a bit more work. You may desire a different set of features. No problem.

  So this first path involves taking abstract visualizations and thinking them through. Despite all the buzz around human-centered design and empathic design, we haven’t really folded in the user experience. We haven’t put ourselves in the users’ shoes enough. It’s time to put visualizations to serious work.

  I used house hunting as an example to focus the idea. Now extrapolate into whatever domains you feel strongly about, whether it’s job hunting, sports, investing, or travel. The second path is exploratory

  The Trulia site has an interesting, Stamen-designed application called Hindsight ( that animates building construction in cities over time. As a marker glides along a timeline, dots appear on a city map. You can see your city grow up, with bursts of development during boom times fleshing out different neighborhoods.

  Trulia’s Hindsight lets you see how your local land- scape is changing over time.

  Eric Rodenbeck, one of Stamen’s principals, explains what kinds of projects the company seeks out. It wants engaging, exploratory applications, rather than task-specific workhorse apps. Hindsight is one example, and the apps that Stamen has built for Digg Labs are others ( These include Arc, Stack, BigSpy, and Swarm—all different ways to see stories as they’re being dugg by Digg users. In Arc, stories populate a circle, in Stack they drop into a line like Tetris pieces. BigSpy has them as pure text, sized by the frequency they’re dugg. And Swarm is a concept map view. They’re all elegant and quite captivating.

  Rodenbeck and his colleagues want to build applications that make you think, that help you create associations you might not have thought of with more conventional tools.

  Many of today’s tools have this exploratory feel. They allow people to test theo- ries, see things expressed in new ways, and play out ideas of how the world works. Release 2.0.4 August 2007 Visualizing Forward Jerry Michalski The third path is persuasive

  Collaborative efforts leave

  When you couple visualization with feedback loops, the result is powerful. It can change behaviors.

  behind networks of people

  To see a great example, you need go no further than your nearest Prius Dashboard. The display that shows when the brakes are regenerating, when

  who have bonded over a

  the gasoline engine cuts in, when you’re on electric power only—and how all of that influences gas mileage—is mesmerizing. In fact, drivers tend to adjust

  common task. They trust one their driving to maximize mileage, as if the software were a video game.

  Sometimes it takes a person to do the persuading. Hans Rosling from Sweden’s another and know how to Karolinska Institute has been talking about statistics in ways that promise to engage work together. broader audiences in discussions around important issues. At GapMinder (http://, the site he runs (and sold recently to Google), tools help animate statistics. Most engrossing of Rosling’s endeavors are his GapCasts, in which he inhabits screens full of data, illustrating trends the way your local weatherman dances with weather fronts. Given how popular videos, podcasts, and screencasts are today, I see some data-driven greenscreen work in our futures.

The fourth path is emergent and user-powered

  The U.K. is famous for its Ordnance Survey maps (among other things), which are accurate and detailed and a great way to get around the country. The only problem is that the British Government decided not to release the survey data for public access, depriving interested parties of many stripes access to excel- lent geocoded data. In 2004, some hobbyists decided to take matters in their own hands and reconstitute the data, using volunteers armed with GPS gear.

  The result is (, a growing trove of geocoding data collected by throwing mapping parties in various cities, bringing together experienced mappers and newbies. As the project grew, a delivery service offered to pool its vehicles’ GPS data, greatly enriching the project’s resources. As a result of this grassroots effort, a deep resource of useful data is now available free of charge, and it is moving to other countries.

  One of the byproducts of such a collaborative effort is that it leaves behind networks of people who have bonded over a common task. That means they trust one another and know how to work together. They may be important networks to know about in future emergencies, or for other projects.

  There are certainly other paths that visualization will take. One light-hearted rendition of what a piece of the territory looks like is this Japanese information architecture trendmap (

  Recently, Manuel Lima of issued a challenge to his peers to create a conceptual map of the visualization territory (http://www. It will be fun to see what that produces, because the many faces of visualization will co-evolve in unpre- dictable ways. The optimist in me believes that it will lead to sharper analyses, n n better decisions, and deeper understandings.


Release 2.0.4 August 2007 Still Tomorrow’s Technology Peter Morville

Still Tomorrow’s Technology Information visualization is great. It’ll be even better when it gets here.

   Peter Morville is president of Semantic Studios and co-founder of the Information Architec- ture Institute. His books include Information by Peter Morville

  Architecture for the World Wide Web and Ambient Findability, both published by O’Reilly. He blogs at

  When I consider the prospect of information visualization, I can’t help but recall an ancient sign outside the Cross Gates Pub in Lancashire, England, which promises “Free Beer Tomorrow,” forever.

  For the past several decades, InfoVis has shared a top spot with artificial intelligence as part of the official (and eternally unreachable) future of human- computer interaction.

  Don’t get me wrong. I’m quite pleased to have AI and InfoVis in the future, provided they don’t get ahead of themselves and try barging into the present, where they don’t belong.

  Let me explain. As an information architect, I specify the structure and behavior of web sites, software products, and interactive services so that users can achieve goals, complete tasks, and find what they need.

  In this role, I’m often asked by my clients to evaluate the potential of search engines, content management systems, and other software to support their user experience strategy, and it’s not uncommon in this process for naïve views about InfoVis to surface and cause trouble.

  Inevitably, clients have seen a cool demo—perhaps it was Grokker, Kartoo, Newsmap, The Honeycomb, or TheBrain—and they’re all fired up to transform the user experience. This is when I start throwing buckets of cold water on my clients, which is not always fun or politically astute but it is infinitely preferable to designing a disaster.

To grok or not to grok

  The problem with InfoVis is that it’s exciting and interesting but not particularly useful for solving most challenges of mainstream information retrieval. Yet, because there’s so much money in Web search and enterprise search, software vendors keep spinning InfoVis as a next-generation search solution.

  For instance, Grokker is a “web-based enterprise search management platform that leverages the power of federated content access and visualization to maxi- mize the value of information assets.” Even better, Grokker has a clustering engine that “combines common phrase discovery with latent semantic indexing to extract key concepts.” In other words, Grokker combines AI and InfoVis to automagically categorize and visually represent search results.

  It all sounds great, until you try it, and discover that neither the categories nor the visual maps actually help you find anything. Even Grokker now defaults to the Outline View, a rough approximation of the highly successful Guided Navigation model pioneered by Endeca, which relies on hybrid human-computer solutions to taxonomy and metadata development, content categorization, and search.

  Grokker doesn’t grok. Its visual display of categories is not informed by nor conducive to profound understanding. And with respect to findability, Grokker fails on multiple levels, and so do all the other contenders in this category.


Release 2.0.4 August 2007 Still Tomorrow’s Technology Peter Morville

Grokker fails on multiple levels. First, the automati- cally-generated categories (e.g., Data Visualiza- tion, Web, General, Group, More) are sufficiently haphazard to be worse than nothing. Second, the spatial rendering of document and cluster icons within larger clusters is harder to understand and scan than a traditional text outline. Also, Grokker adds unnecessary steps and complexity to the user’s search process.

Unknown unknowns

  That’s not to say that InfoVis has no future. To the contrary, in concert with text analytics solutions from such companies as Attensity and Nstein, visualization is already being successfully applied to the challenges of national security and business intelligence. By identifying the semantic patterns that emerge from unstructured data streams, these solutions help us to uncover what Donald Rumsfeld labeled the “unknown unknowns.” InfoVis can help us find anomalies and trends we didn’t know to seek. However, we must be wary of seductive charts that use past performance to forecast future results. We should heed the wisdom of Warren Buffett who “realized technical analysis didn’t work when I turned the charts upside down and didn’t get a different answer” and Peter Lynch who noted “charts are great for predicting the past.”

Using vision to think

  So, how do we describe the true potential of InfoVis? The best explanation I’ve heard is from Karl Fast, an information architecture and knowledge management researcher at Kent State University. Karl argues that interactive visualizations can help us better understand an existing data set and problem domain by shifting the burden from cognitive to perceptual. InfoVis is about using vision to think.

  Karl also admits that InfoVis remains a research problem rather than a practical solution. That’s why my advice is to hold off on buying any InfoVis software products, especially in the search domain, at least until tomorrow, when you n n can finally enjoy that free beer.


David Weinberger Caution: Low Visibility Release 2.0.4 August 2007

Caution: Low Visibility A contrarian look at the way things look

  David Weinberger’s most recent book is Every- thing Is Miscellaneous. His other books include by David Weinberger

  The Cluetrain Manifesto and Small Pieces Loosely Joined. He is a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society. He served as the senior Internet adviser to the

  I understand the theory behind showing information visually. I’ve got it firmly

  Howard Dean presidential campaign. Find him

  in mind and could describe it to you in a few terse sentences, neatened up with online at properly placed commas and perhaps a subordinate clause or two. The one thing I could not do is draw you a diagram.