In dog years, this website is now (almost) as old as I am. Over the years, it has changed both its direction and design several times; there have been times when I was overwhelmed with my readers’ reactions and times when nobody seemed to read the stuff I wrote. While I generally hate “best of” postings and indulging in nostalgia, I want to look back at a few of the things that I believe have shaped this site and how I think about what I’m doing, and revisit a few of the more interesting and/or successful things I’ve managed to do and write over the years.
If there is one thing most people seem to identify this site with, it is criticism. While there is ample criticism to be found on the Internet when it is anonymous, hateful, and stupid, there is precious little that is thoughtful, interesting, and has an identified author. While I see a lot of people criticize visualization in private conversations, practically nobody is willing to do so in public.
That kind of work is badly needed, though, because of the vast amounts of horribly bad visualizations that are out there. And I believe in calling people out on bad stuff they do, because it’s the only way things change. When I criticized Ben Fry’s Cost of Getting Sick nonsense, a lot of people asked me if I had any better ideas, so I came up with a few solutions that showed some reasonably interesting facts about the data. GE Healthcare, which had commissioned that work, later removed the visualization from their website, and I have reason to believe that my criticism cost Fry his gig with them. That was certainly not my intention, but Fry should have known better, and he has done much better work before and after this.
And it’s not like criticism is going to run out of material anytime soon. There is nonsense like periodic tables of visualization, data mountains, and the ever-popular Chernoff Faces. There are also good things, of course, and I’ve been writing more about those lately as well, like infographics when they’re good, pie charts when they’re used well, and the chart junk paper.
The Visualization Landscape
What good is visualization if you can’t actually find the tools to do it? I wondered about the dearth of visualization tools a while ago, and I still think that we don’t have anywhere near enough. There is Tableau of course, but I don’t see any others that are nearly as versatile or useful; and for all its features, Tableau is still rather expensive.
One of the most exciting developments in visualization in the last few years is what was called Visualization for the Masses or Social Data Visualization. I had high hopes for it, but after a short time it ended up largely fizzling and dropping into the background.
Among the main contenders were Many Eyes and Swivel, who I pitched against one another shortly after they had launched. At the time, I criticized (among many other things) Many Eyes’s lack of a business model; my money was on Swivel when it came to longer-term survival. Of course, Swivel folded two years later, and I did some post-mortem interviews with the people behind the site. While I don’t think that we got very satisfying answers, there certainly were a lot of interesting insights into the problems facing visualization companies on the web.
There is still a lot of room for exciting commercial work in visualization, and there is no lack of people doing things. While many startups seem to be hell-bent on reinventing bar and pie charts for the web, there are some notable exceptions like Visual.ly that do work that is at the same time useful, commercially viable, and visionary.
The site has gone through a number of designs, and likely will see another redesign in the near future. Design is clearly not my strong suite, but that doesn’t keep me from spending enormous amounts of time trying to come up with new ones that look better and communicate what the site is trying to be. Part of this is also my constant battle with Drupal, which does a lot of useful things but makes some very simple things annoyingly complicated.
The teaser image for this posting, courtesy of The Internet Archive, shows the site as it was on December 17, 2004 (most later designs rely on images that the archive did not capture, unfortunately). I had had the domain for a while before I settled on what I really wanted to do with it, what content management system (CMS) to use, etc. The image shows my early attempts at writing my own CMS, which I fortunately gave up in favor of using Drupal. I still get the urge to roll my own from time to time, though.
Fun Stuff and Greatest Hits
Among the less serious things I’ve done are the U.S. ZIPScribble Map, ZIPScribble Maps for other countries, and the Traveling Presidential Candidate Map. Those consistently rank among the most popular pages on my site, even though they have now been around for several years.
While the ZIPScribble Maps have proven to be more popular than I ever thought possible, my various attempts at visualizing iTunes download data (for the billionth song download, the ten-billionth song download, and the billionth app download) have not gotten nearly as much traffic as I thought they would. I actually find the patterns in that data rather interesting, but I seem to be an exception there.
No self-indulgent, redundant posting like this is complete without a cursory look at the future. What’s in store for eagereyes? Where do I see the site in 5, 10, 100 years?
The truth is, I have no idea. I certainly plan on continuing what I’m doing right now, and I have a long list of ideas for things I want to do, most of which I probably will never get to.
What I do know, however, is what I want to achieve with this site: provide deeper background about visualization that goes beyond the pretty pictures. I want people who look for the meaning behind the pixels to be able to find something. I want to provide an alternative to the general “oooh, shiny!” attitude towards visualization that is so prevalent on the web. And I want to push things forward by calling out things that ineffective, stupid, and wrong, and pointing out better ways of doing them.