Why spend countless hours writing a blog like this? What do I get out of it? What do I hope to accomplish? What is the purpose?
To Get Information Out
This is really the biggest thing. No normal person is ever going to read a research paper. They don’t know they exist, they don’t know where to look for them, they can’t access them, and they won’t care about some tiny result that they have no idea how to make use of.
What people do care about, though, is learning about research. They want to know what’s happening, what we find out, and what the reasons are for all the recommendations and rules we throw around. I give many talks to non-researchers (i.e., normal people), and I see a lot of excitement and curiosity about perceptual basics, bigger ideas, etc.
Where can people go to find that stuff? Visualization isn’t covered by the usual science blogs or magazines. So where do you go? Individual researchers’s pages? Twitter? There’s really no place to find that stuff.
That is not to say that this website has anything remotely approaching complete coverage, but I try. I write about papers when I go to conferences. I sometimes write about individual pieces of research, but not as much as I probably should. And I point to my own research, of course.
There’s a real need for good, readable, up-to-date information about what new stuff we’re finding in researchland. There’s a need for readable, well-sourced guides that give people useful and usable (actionable if you’re into business-speak) information about visualization based on current research. And there’s nowhere near enough of it out there.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on that’s related to visualization. Some of it is research, some of it is projects being launched, some of it is stuff that is way outside of what we usually think about, but where it’s interesting to make a connection.
Two projects I followed closely from their beginning to their eventual demise were Many Eyes and Swivel. I wrote about Many Eyes on Tuesday, but I actually put an equal amount of work into Swivel. In case you don’t remember: Swivel was a data visualization website that was much simpler and academically less ambitious than Many Eyes, but seemed much more driven by a clear strategy. When it started to decline, I interviewed its founders and they spoke very frankly about their failures. I then also got ahold of the venture capitalist who had bankrolled the project to get his take.
Other things are smaller, but I think they’re important to know and point people to. When I realized that TVCG had switched the way it published VIS papers, I wrote about that. When I learned that MTurk worker IDs were easily connected to real people, I did the same.
And some things are arguably tenuous connections, but worth considering. I’ve argued that the Nobel Prize Al Gore and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were awarded in 2007 was a Nobel Prize for data visualization. And I keep writing about information graphics, journalism, and other topics.
To Read the Tea Leaves
In early 2010, I wrote a posting titled The State of Information Visualization on a whim. The title was meant to be preposterous, but the idea was serious: capture what’s happening in the field and figure out where things are going from here. I have now written seven of those postings.
Who else takes stock of what’s going on in the field? I think this is important. And it’s not exactly done much. The only ones other than me are Moritz and Enrico with the year-end episodes of their podcast and Andy Kirk’s monthly and six-monthly roundups.
I think it’s important to keep stepping back and reflecting on what’s going on in visualization, both in terms of research and in terms of projects, products, companies, etc.
To Nudge the Field in the Right Direction
It’s not a secret that this blog is widely read in the visualization community, at least in information visualization. I don’t claim to set the agenda here, but I certainly hope to gently push the field into certain directions that it might not otherwise go. I’ve been pushing storytelling as a topic for number of years now. I also keep talking about criticism and its importance for research (that came back to me recently in a paper review, which was kind of weird). And I hope that my own work and the stuff I point to on memorability and embellishments inspires more work.
This is paying off. I know people use my site for teaching materials in their courses. I’ve talked to students who told me they got the idea for a project after reading something on here. I have no way of tracking all of that, and it’s lots of small things. But they’re happening. And it’s thrilling (and sometimes scary) to see that.
To Grow and to Learn
To say that I’ve learned an enormous amount here might seem obvious. But it’s true. I’ve learned way more about writing than I ever thought I would. I’ve learned to think about my writing differently, write more fluently, mix things up.
This has also made me appreciate good writing and good communication. There’s a lot to be learned from the people who know how to write and explain things. For all the writing academics do, that is oddly something that they don’t pay nearly as much attention to as they should.
Observing, communicating, digesting, taking the pulse of the field has taught me a lot about visualization. And it has forced me to stretch both my work and my definition of what I consider visualization.
This site may be a hobby, but it’s a serious one. It’s so tightly interwoven with my work that it’s impossible to tell apart at this point. And it has become so much a part of how I think that it’s hard to imagine what I’d do instead.