The State of Information Visualization, 2015
It seems to be a foregone conclusion that 2014 was not an exciting year in visualization. When we recorded the Data Stories episode looking back at 2014 last week (to be released soon), everybody started out with a bit of a downer. But plenty of things happened, and they point to even more new developments in 2015.
If this was such a boring year, how come Andy Kirk have a round-up of the first six months, and another posting for the second half of the year with many good examples? Or how about Nathan Yau's list of the best data vis projects of the year? So yeah, things happened. New things, even.
I’m still awed by the quality of InfoVis 2014. It wasn’t even just the content of the papers that was really good, it was the whole package: present interesting new findings, present them well, make your data and/or code available. This had never happened with such consistency and at that level of quality before.
The direction of much of the research is also different. There were barely any new technique papers, which is largely a good thing. For a while, there were lots of new techniques that didn't actually solve any real problems, but were assumed to be the way forward. Now we're seeing more of a theoretical bent (like the AlgebraicVis paper), more basic research that looks very promising (e.g., the Weber's Law paper), and papers questioning long-held assumptions (the bar charts perception paper, the error bars paper, the paper on staged animation, etc.).
Thoughtfully replicating, critiquing, and improving upon oft-cited older papers should be a valid and common way of doing research in InfoVis. The only way forward in science is to keep questioning beliefs and ideas. It's good to see more of this happening, and I hope that this trend continues.
I talked about storytelling at the beginning of last year, and 2014 was clearly a big one for that. Besides the Story Points feature in Tableau 8.2, there have been many interesting new approaches to building more compelling stories from data.
Some new formats are also emerging, like Bloomberg View’s Data View series (unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to list all of them). I’m not yet convinced by the ever more common “scrollytelling” format, and have seen some really annoying and distracting examples. I don’t entirely agree with Mike Bostock’s argument that scrolling is easier than clicking, but he at least has some good advice for people building these sorts of things.
There was also a bit of a discussion about stories between Moritz Stefaner and myself, with Moritz firing the first shot, my response plus a definition of story, and finally a Data Stories episode about data stories where we sorted it all out.
There is no doubt that we'll see more of this in the coming years. The tools are improving and people are starting to experiment and learn what works and what doesn't. I hope that we will also see more and deeper academic work in this area.
Speaking of conferences, like InfoVis, only different: these may not be new, but they are continuing. Tapestry, OpenVis, Visualized, eyeo, etc. are all connecting people from different disciplines. People talking to each other is good. Conferences are good.
That all these conferences are viable (and eyeo is basically impossible to get into) is actually quite remarkable. There is an interest in learning more. The people speaking there are also interesting, because they are not all the usual suspects. Journalists in particular did not use to speak much outside of journalism conferences. They have interesting things to say. People want to hear it.
The Rise of Data Journalism
FiveThirtyEight. Vox. The UpShot. They all launched (or relaunched) last year. Has it all been good? No. Nate Silver’s vow to make the news nerdier is off to a good start, but there is still a long ways to go. Vox has gotten too many things wrong and, quite frankly, needs to slow down and rethink their approach of publish-first-check-later. There is also a bit of a cargo cult going on, where every story involving numbers is suddenly considered data journalism.
But even with some of the false starts and teething problems, it's clear that data in journalism is happening, and it is becoming more visible.
What Else 2015 Will Bring
In addition to the above, I think it's clear that the use of visualization for communication and explanation of data will continue outside of journalism as well. Analysis is not going away of course, but more of its results will be visual rather than turned into tables or similar. The value of visualization is hardly limited to a single person staring at a screen.
This is also being picked up on the academic side. I think we will see more research published in this direction, more focused on particular ideas and more useful than what has been done so far (which has been mostly analysis).
Finally, I'm looking forward to more good writing about visualization. Tamara Munzner's book came out last year, but since I haven't read it yet, I can't say anything other than that I have very high expectations. Several other people are also working on books, including Cole Nussbaumer, Andy Kirk, and Alberto Cairo (the latter two are slated to come out in 2016, though).
I didn't think that 2014 was a bad year for information visualization. And I think 2015 and beyond will be even better.