I was talking with a labmate yesterday about the sorry state of information visualization, a topic we’re both very, very enthusiastic about. There have been great strides over the last few years in making data look great. For examples, just peruse the Infoshetics Blog. The problem, though, is that our understanding in how to make info visualizations which actually convey useful information and aide the viewer in making good decisions has not kept pace with the Art often called Information Visualization. It boils down to one thing: Art and Information Visualization are not the same.
Is it Art? Is it a Visualization?
Jer Thorp recently used the NYT’s API to visualize the most important news topics in 2008, pictured to the left. I saw a lot of talk exclaiming what a great piece of info viz this was, and that makes me really disheartened. Thorp’s work is very good, but it’s good art, not good information visualization. The sooner people can begin making the distinction between information visualization and art, the better each field can be.
I think it’s a beautiful and well-crafted artistic piece, but it’s not information visualization. You can easily understand what the top 4 or 5 news pieces of 2008 were, but that’s not the majority of what is shown. There are a myriad of lines gracefully arcing behind the main news stories, implying how different topics are connected. If only we could dig deeper and discover what those connections are, but alas, even the full resolution image still hides these secrets from us. To make matters worse, the coloring has no obvious meaning, and in some cases, is very misleading. Is there a good reason for the New York Yankees to be the same color as Vladimir Putin or the Supreme Court? I’m guessing not. However, what really destroys the usefulness is the fractal bird’s nest in the center of the image. Any hope of following a line back to some other source enters that labyrinth of rainbows, never to emerge again.
Yet, all the reasons I just listed as making the image a horrible piece of info viz also make a great work of art. I think the colors are really great, the fractal shape in the center is really beautiful, and certainly the relative sizing of the top news stories offers a potent commentary on what the New York Times found important in 2008.
Where do you draw the line?
I’m not laying into Jer Thorp’s work because I think it’s bad, but because it’s a great example of the miscommunication that has been happening lately over information visualization and art. Lots of people send me links to “cool” visualizations. What they’re really sending me are beautiful pieces of art, not visualizations. Art can make statements though, or inspire people to start critically thinking, but they are not meant be used as tools aiding in critical decision making. In reality, real information visualization often doesn’t end up looking sexy. Should it? I think the bigger problem is that we don’t how to display information well enough to simultaneously convey meaning and accomodate for aesthetics. Like some crude cavemen trying to paint up pictures of the latest hunt on our cave wall, we’re grasping at straws for how to display large data sets, let alone look good while we’re doing it.