A Better Vis Web Community

Half Empty

When I look around my little corner of the Internet, I see a few other people doing related stuff, but I also see a lot of unrealized potential. Why are there so few people in the visualization community who run a website? Why are the most popular visualization-related sites almost entirely about pointing at colorful pictures done by others, rather than doing their own? And how can we get more original, quality visualization content on the web?

I recently came across two postings by Merlin Mann, the guy who runs the productivity website 43 Folders (and about a dozen others). They both really hit home with me and made me think a lot about why I do what I do and how I can make things more valuable. I recommend you read both of these postings before continuing, they are outstanding: Real Advice Hurts and Better. Quoting short sections of these postings or paraphrasing them would be exactly the opposite of what they say. They’re as long as they have to be, and they say what needs to be said.

When I look around, I see a lot of visualization porn. The pretty, flashy mash-ups of something or other, depicting somebody’s life, citing information graphics in a commercial, or growing flowers from twitter feeds. Is that visualization? Is that what we want visualization to be? Is there no way to do things better?

There are good examples. There’s Enrico Bertini’s thoughtful Visuale. There’s Stephen Few’s scathing and enjoyable Visual Business Intelligence. There’s Jorge Camoes’ Charts and Kaiser Fung’s Junk Charts. I’m also liking Jon Peltier’s PTS Blog more and more.

What all of these have in common (with the exception of Peltier) is that they only post occasionally, when they have something to say (yeah, I don’t care about the Excel technique posts on PTS, but that’s just me). Bertini posts every six months or so. His articles are long and well written. He doesn’t just point at what others are doing.

One problem we have is that most of the people in a position to contribute but don’t are academics. And for some reason, academics haven’t quite figured out this blogging thing yet. They’re afraid of telling others what they are thinking about. They’re scared that when they apply for their next job, somebody will find their website and use it against them. They feel that they can’t spare the time while they’re slogging away on their tenure case. As a consequence, there is very little thinking between all the pictures.

I got interested in functional programming recently, and I’ve been following a few websites. In particular, there is Planet Haskell and Planet Scala (Planet is an open source feed aggregation script). Both have a lot of original, quality content. There is the occasional off-topic posting, but even those are usually well argued and interesting. I considered starting a Planet Visualization, but thinking of which sites to include made me abandon that project. While there is plenty of material, there just isn’t the quality.

What I get out of running this website is satisfaction. There are two parts to that: reach and quality. I enjoy having lots of visitors to the site and subscribers to the feed. But I won’t sacrifice the quality of the material – or its mission. And the mission has to be more than finding the lowest-hanging fruit that can be sold as visualization. It needs to be better.

19 responses to “A Better Vis Web Community”

  1. Carlos Scheidegger Avatar

    I don’t think “academia” explains all of it. Take the theoryCS and computational geometry community: a lot of good blogs out there – I can think of a half dozen off the top of my head. There’s something deeper going on.

  2. T.J. Jankun-Kelly Avatar

    I believe the clue to the “why” lies in your post: All the good bloggers take “time” to make their posts. Visualization is still a mostly hand-crafted practice, good visualization doubly so. Fast usually means tacky/bad/provably wrong. Its easy to just “write” about visualization, but if one is to be a good writer, and thus “show” instead of “tell”, well… that takes time.

  3. Robert Kosara Avatar
    Robert Kosara

    I agree, that’s why I mentioned the functional programming folks: most of them are academics.

  4. Robert Kosara Avatar
    Robert Kosara

    But the question is, what is more important: posting every day or posting quality/original stuff?

  5. T.J. Jankun-Kelly Avatar

    Something like the Daring Fireball model is probably ideal: Gruber posts short links to related materials often, but his more in detail posts are weekly/bi-weekly. Keeps the interest level up without sacrificing quality.


  6. Hadley Wickham Avatar

    I disagree – most visualisations being created are time consuming because people are using poor tools for the job. Unless you can churn out ten or twenty visualisations an hour, you just can not try enough variations to figure out what the best is. If it takes an hour to make a visualisation then you have too much time invested to just throw it away and try a different approach.

    I agree that it takes time to get the final details right and to explain what exactly you did, but you should be able to get 90% of the visualisation done in a very short amount of time. (The final 10% always takes the longest of course)

  7. Hadley Wickham Avatar

    The reason I don’t blog is not because I’m worried people will steal my ideas, but because I don’t have the time.  I already spend a huge amount of my day communicating my ideas – to my students in class, with colleagues via chat and emails, on mailing lists, writing papers, writing a book, and writing (and documenting!) code that others can use.  I also feel like I’m near the my correspondence limits with email already – there’s just no way I’d have the time to moderate and respond to blog comments as well.

  8. Carlos Scheidegger Avatar

    I’m always reluctant to claim “not enough time”, because clearly there’s people with more on their plates than I do, and yet they write prolifically (Terence Tao is the best example I know). I suspect the reason in our case is a lack of culture: we simply haven’t learned how to blog about visualization.

    When writing papers, mathematicians spend a ton of time making sure their theorems are indeed proven by the proofs they’re writing — I doubt that’s the case when blogging. So if nice, polished figures take too long, make a simple, crude picture that still gets to the point! If moderating posts takes too much time, let the posters loose!

  9. Jon Peltier Avatar

    We are all juggling work, family, and personal time, and maintaining a blog is just one more thing shouting for attention. I’m trying to run a business, Hadley’s in the long march towards tenure, and everyone else has their own large mountain to climb.

    In the end it’s a balance of priorities. I’ve had a web site for eight or nine years, and it’s been hard to feed it more than one or two pages a month. With new blogging software (I find WordPress to be awesome), it is possible to post at least something every day, without too much effort. But everyday posting requires time and attention, and sometimes the half hour to write a post requires another hour to get into the frame of mind for yet another task.

    It’s not hard coming up with subject material, we’re bombarded by it. I go through stages where I try to write five posts on the weekend and schedule them through the week. Then I decide twice a week is enough. Then during the week something comes up that I just have to address, and two otherwise billable hours evaporate.

  10. Tim Avatar

    I think visualisation is a very broad spectrum. Taking a small section of it and declaring it “better visualisation” is misplaced in my opinion. It’s not necessarily “better” it is just your preferred “frequency” within the spectrum. Whether it is something from tufte or an info pornographer, every day or every six months, it will be to the taste of someone out there, so I say, “the more the merrier”.

  11. Enrico Bertini Avatar

    I’m glad and honored to be part of this short list of “good guys”!

    I agree almost entirely with your analysis Robert (how could I disagree!). My blog Visuale started pretty much like any other blog around, posting links of interesting things I found on the web. Soon however I realized it was quite boring and almost useless both for me and the others. And most of all, sincerely, I thought I couldn’t compete with Infosthetics :-)

    I must say that in the end writing less and striving to produce “thicker” postings is a way to make it useful for me. To produce a post I have to invest a lot more and think about it a lot deeper; which in turn helps me being less superficial. It’s this kind of selfish return on investment that repays me of the effort. At least in part.

    However I perfectly understand those who decide not to have a blog. Actually, it’s those who decide to have one which I don’t understand! It takes a lot of time and effort … and doing it the way you describe here is even harder … a lot harder.

    Anyway … great post! And I was really moved by the articles you linked. Let me suggest another one: Jakob Nielsen’s, Write Articles, Not Blog Postings (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/articles-not-blogs.html).

    One last thing: maybe in the post you wanted to say that I write a post every 6 “weeks” not “months”, right? :-)

  12. infosthetics Avatar

    I might be wrong, but I somehow feel to whom your arrows are pointed at.


    I am not sure why you wish this uniformity. Why the question “what is more important: posting every day or posting quality/original stuff?” is even a valid one. Quality clearly is in the eye of the beholder (or here, blog author). And one can stop frequenting specific blogs with… a simple mouse click?

    Frankly, it also surprises me to read how one can diminish the value of the “pretty, flashy mash-ups of something or other”. I can hear the scientist in his high, ivory tower. There are people behind these projects, think creative directors, journalists, visual artists, graphic designers and others. Time. Meetings. Experimentation. Briefs. Deliverables. Programming. Sweat. And pride. Naturally, most of these people, are quite interested in visualization. And as an academic myself, I would sincerely wish they would not have a comparable attitude towards “scientific” (oops, should I say “valuable”?) visualizations. I wouldn’t even be surprised if various kids contemplate studying computer science because of these “low-hanging fruit” projects. It seems respect in both directions is just an utopian goal?

    On the other side, please know I very much enjoy all the “quality” blogs you mention, and I truly appreciate tremendously the effort the authors put into creating real, original content. I can only imagine the courage they have to publicly communicate their personal opinions. In fact, I fully agree with your comments about academics and blogging, and the reasons you mention shouldn’t simply be ignored. While it might work for computational geometry blogs, I do question whether that community frequently negatively critique each other works (or blogs)?

    In the meantime, I go back hiding in the gutter.

  13. andrea Avatar

    as neither an academic, a researcher, a student, or a blogger (but having been some and close-to-some) this is my view from the outside:

    – if I’m interested in visualisation, I look at websites that show me visualisations. I don’t look at pages and pages of text.

    – if I want inspiration, to know what’s out there, what’s been done, what gap needs to be filled, and what existing and new techniques there are, I look on those ‘pretty’ sites.

    okay, so I’m coming from the designer-perspective, but I’m sure a programmer nerd would appreciate some good graphics. a more ‘traditional’ visualisation person might concentrate on his models and frameworks and usability studies, but still want to know how to make his maps more engaging for people by learning from the designer, and how to optimise them with code from the programmer!

    i think what you’re hoping for is a personal ideal of a visualisation web community. it seems a little stuck in the 1990s when vis was still all about the theory and testing.

    it’s more than that now! it’s so rich and so interdisciplinary!

    look at the amazing things being made! how could you ignore them? even from an ivory tower so high up?

    (perhaps we’re all getting worked up over a opinion rather than a well-researched argument).

  14. Michal Migurski Avatar

    I have to side with Infosthetics here – Robert, I know where you’re coming from, but I’m categorically suspicious of any post, from anyone in any community, decrying the low production standards of what they see around them.

    For one, it adds nothing to the conversation. There will be a narrow range of responses: Most likely, it will rile up the cranks taking a break from not being productive to agree that yes, things really are worse today than they were back in the golden era. With luck, it will also drum up optimistic, productive people dropping by to disagree. Either way it’s not a useful observation if you don’t like what you see but refuse to look away. To criticize fruit for being low-hanging is the height of folly – it’s hanging there because someone’s standing on the branch, look up and keep climbing for god’s sake. =)

    For two, I think it’s a category or term-ownership error. I’m honestly through with hearing work described as “beautiful but useless” (a longstanding in-joke here at Stamen). What’s wrong with beautiful? “Is that what we want visualization to be?” – it’s obviously what someone wants visualization to be, or there wouldn’t be any attention paid to the genre. You’re missing a large shift in the audience for infoviz: we’ve spent the past 5-10 years with our foot in the door of academia, trying to pull the techniques and expectations around visualization into the bright light of day where there’s a broader audience to appreciate it.

    Really, the beef I have is with your conflation of difficulty and quality. I’m honestly, completely impressed by the talent that certain people have for identifying simple, impactful, quality work that’s been overlooked by the pro/academic communities for being too “easy”.

  15. Michal Migurski Avatar

    Derf, there are supposed to be two paragraph breaks and several bits of italics in that comment – the rich text editor is a little busted in safari on a mac.

  16. Robert Kosara Avatar
    Robert Kosara

    And I also respect the work I criticize, that’s not the point. What I’m talking about are two things: what does the (academic) visualization community want the world to think visualization is, and why is there so little thinking about visualization that is exposed on blogs (and in general)?

    I know how much work it is to even do the simple stuff I do here, so I definitely realize how much effort there is behind all these projects. But that doesn’t meant they’re all visualization in the sense that the academic field of visualization (and thus the InfoVis/Vis/etc. conferences) would recognize. That field isn’t clearly defined, and it’s not static either (and that’s a good thing!); but the focus of much of the stuff that gets attention on the web is on design (and often, prettiness) rather than on communicating data.

    And yes, I was talking about infosthetics, but I still subscribe to your feed. This is not about excluding, it’s about also getting other stuff online, and getting it the audience the design-focused work gets. To borrow that old Hamilton quote: The goal of visualization is insight, not pretty pictures.

  17. Robert Kosara Avatar
    Robert Kosara

    The italics are there, but it looks like the HTML filter swallowed the paragraph breaks. I’ll look into that. I’ve added a few breaks where I thought they made sense. Let me know if you want them different.

  18. Robert Kosara Avatar
    Robert Kosara

    Maybe you’re right about the reason for the low-hanging fruit (I like that image ;), but the point is that a lot of stuff that gets attention is rather low-hanging. The slew of tag clouds after the super-bowl is an example of that: easy to do, pretty, useless of very limited utility. And after two days, nobody cares anymore. It’s not even about usefulness or not, but about lack of depth.

    The beauty vs. usefulness question is one I’m interested in, and where I certainly don’t take a position that excludes the other side. What I want though is that people realize that visualization is not just about images or design, but about communicating data. When you look around the popular sites, you see very little of that.

    I have a few postings on here that actually talk about this, and maybe I’ll put together something to make my position clearer. The point of this posting was to make people think and get a discussion going, not so much precision and definition. Looks like the first part worked. ;)

  19. Robert Kosara Avatar
    Robert Kosara

    I would argue that if you’re only looking at pictures, you’re not doing visualization. As I tried to clarify above, what I miss in a lot of work is the readability. It’s not hard to make something visual that is based on data, but it’s much more difficult to make it possible for people to understand the data from the image. And I don’t see why we would be over that – that’s the whole point!