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Visualization Sets Information Free

Enormous amounts of information are technically freely available, but are hard to access in practice. A lot of that data comes from data collection funded by taxpayers, or from data that needs to be reported for legal reasons. While much of that data has been lying around on the Internet for some time, only recently have people started building tools that make it easy (and often even fun) to play with it. Even though the types of data are very different, all these tools have one thing in common: they are primarily visual.

Many visualization websites that were started in the last few years have had the primary focus of exploring a particular data set. They Rule (where the image above comes from) shows the connections between the boards of large US companies, Death and Taxes breaks up the US budget into the many different things taxpayer money is spent on, citegraph connects US supreme court cases, and Gapminder (recently acquired by Google) provides the tools to see the economic development of the entire world over the last 40 years.

And while a considerable part of the US Census data are freely available, few people will be able and willing to dig through a horrible, outdated file format and hundreds of pages of documentation. Two projects conveniently map that data onto the hip and sexy Google Earth: gCensus, and an unnamed project by the people at Juice Analytics. If you're not into maps, there is also the brilliantly named (the link points to a paper and video, the site is not open to the public right now).

What is also interesting is that the primary focus of these websites is not even visualization, but the data. Even the existence of some of that data is quite remarkable, and being able to work with it in a visual way is the main concern. Visual tools simply provide easy and direct access, and thus make sense to be used. This may sound self-evident, but is not in the general mindset of many visualization researchers (including the author of this text).

The much more general social data analysis/visualization websites Swivel and Many Eyes are built around very similar ideas: use some visual tools to explore your own data, or data that is available from various sources on the web. Being able to use these tools, users are stimulated to dig deeper, to ask new questions, and to demand more data. This is quite subversive, actually, even if it may start as a cute little toy. Over time, people will realize how much more accessible information is, and be aware of a lot more information than they would otherwise be.

In his article Aesthetics of Information Visualization, Warren Sack argues that we need to look at the types of governance a visualization supports. Making information available (because an agency or company is required by law, for example) is one thing; making that data simple and fun to use and explore is quite another. The amount of scrutiny that is possible now makes a huge difference, and undoubtedly will make some people quite nervous.

Information wants to be free, and while the cages have been unlocked on some data for some time, visualization provides the wings for information to really enjoy its freedom.

Update: replaced the image with one that I ripped off gapminder's FlowerPoint.

Posted by Robert Kosara on April 4, 2007.