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An Outsider’s Guide to the IEEE VIS Conference 2020

Want to watch a keynote by a Nobel laureate, catch the presentations of the best papers, or attend a workshop on visualization for communication? The IEEE VIS conference is taking place online in two weeks, October 25 to 30, and is free to attend this year. Here are a few starting points if you’ve never been to VIS and don't know why you should attend or what to watch.

VIS bills itself as the premier forum for advances in visualization and visual analytics, and it certainly is an academic conference. It is trying to become more accessible and useful to people outside the academic visualization community, however. Many of the things I'm listing below are accessible and interesting to people outside of the immediate visualization field.

Attendance this year is free, or costs $10 if you want the electronic proceedings. The main annoyance is that you have to use the obnoxious and entirely unnecessary “virtual assistant” to register. Once you’re past that, you’ll never have to deal with “her” again, though. The registration page is here, but you won’t be able to escape the repulsive registration robot anywhere on the VIS website.

The proceedings are really cheap at $10, but if you don’t want to risk it, you can always google paper titles and often find them online, or email the authors to ask them for a copy.

What follows are a few picks that I think are the best starting points for people who don’t typically attend VIS (or any academic conference). Since the conference was supposed to take place in Salt Lake City, UT, all times below are in Mountain Time (MDT). I will mention a few other times zones below for convenience, but use a time zone converter to help you plan.

Sunday, October 25: VisComm

The VisComm Workshop on Visualization for Communication was started, last least in part, to bring in people from outside the visualization community who wouldn’t usually attend VIS. And of course to investigate and promote the idea of using data visualization for communication, presentation, journalism, storytelling, etc. We have another exciting program this year, with a healthy focus on healthcare, as you might expect.

The first session will be all about communicating about health using data. The second session has a large variety of topics ranging from hurricanes to taxes, and some great ideas about how communication should be structured and made more equitable. Check out the program on our website to see more details. All the papers are linked from there too.

VisComm takes place on Sunday, October 25, from 11:50am to 3:15pm MDT (that means it starts at 10:50am PDT, 12:50pm CDT, 1:50pm EDT, 7:50pm CEST). We’re also organizing a meetup for VisComm attendees (or anyone interested) on Thursday, October 29, at 1:40pm MDT. For details on that, see the VisComm website.

Monday, October 26: VisInPractice

Similarly, VisInPractice is the attempt to make VIS more accessible for people out in the world using visualization, and to bring practitioners to the conference to talk about how they use visualization and how they incorporate research into their work. They’ve been doing this for a few years now and have had some great speakers, and this year is no exception.

VisInPractice starts on Monday at 10am MDT (9am PDT, 11am CDT, 12pm EDT, 7pm CEST) and runs until the end of the day (3:30pm MDT).

Tuesday, October 27: Keynote, Best Papers, Test of Time

Tuesday is technically the official beginning of the conference, for reasons that are way too boring to explain here (and don’t get me started on the distinction between workshops and associated events, this clearly is an academic venue). Opening sessions are pretty boring for the most part, but here are the things I suggest you watch even if you’re not a visualization person.

First, the keynote by Nobel laureate Mario Capecchi, co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Keynotes tend to be great, especially when they’re by people outside of the field. And how often do you get to see a Nobel laureate speak? If you watch nothing else, watch this. It starts at 10am MDT (9am PDT, 11am CDT, 12pm EDT, 7pm CEST).

Right before that are the VIS Best Papers presentations. These were selected from all the paper submissions this year, and provide a great way to see some of the most interesting work in a compact format. Since these talks are part of the opening session, they also tend to be good presentations, which isn’t always the case at academic conferences. There is one best paper for each of the three conferences that are part of the VIS conference (don’t ask), so you’ll get a good cross-section of different topics too. The best papers presentations start an hour before the keynote, at 9am MDT.

A few years ago, VIS started recognizing work that was published 10, 15, or 20 years ago and is still important with the Test of Time Awards. The talks in this part can be a bit harder to follow if you don’t know the work, but some of them have done a really nice job outlining the general ideas and showing how the work developed over time. This year, this session includes the Polaris papers by Chris Stolte, Pat Hanrahan, and Diane Tang which formed the basis for Tableau, as well as the popular paper on narrative visualization by Ed Segel and Jeff Heer. This session starts an hour before the best papers, at 8am MDT.

Friday, October 30: Capstone

This year’s capstone talk is by Sheelagh Carpendale, long a professor at the University of Calgary and now at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver (You read it here first! This information is not yet on the VIS website, less than two weeks before the conference is set to begin).

Sheelagh was (and I guess still is) an artist as well as a researcher in visualization and human-computer interaction coming from a qualitative research background. Her talk will be much more visualization-centric than the keynote, and undoubtedly include a lot of her own work. Her perspective should be really interesting, though. Capstones are always a bit of a sad affair with many people leaving before it starts, but they’re often at least as interesting, sometimes even better, than the keynote.

The capstone starts at noon MDT on Friday, which is 11am PDT, 1pm CDT, 2pm EDT, or 9pm CEST.

All the Other Things

And then there’s everything else. I picked the items above because I think they are the most relevant to people outside the field, and as I’m writing this, there’s no detailed program online yet. Panels tend to be interesting, though, and there are a number of workshops on specific topics to check out.

Paper talks can be hit and miss, but if one of the above has piqued your interest, look around the program and pick a session or two to attend. Don’t be put off by a single talk that’s boring or impossible to understand, you’ll find another one that’s amazing and easy to follow.

There’s a lot of great work at VIS every year, and one of the few advantages of the situation we’re in is that you’re able to see much more of it for yourself for free. So give it a shot!

Posted by Robert Kosara on October 11, 2020. Filed under IEEEVIS.