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A Better Vis Web Community

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.

Posted by Robert Kosara on January 15, 2009.