Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Visualization Hall of Fame

My former colleagues Irene Ros and Matt McKeon along with Yannick Assogba at IBM Research have released “Many Bills”, a follow up to IBM’s revolutionary social data visualization service “Many Eyes”. Many Bills draws our eyes on the right stuff, using colour appropriately to highlight thematic similarities and differences in the various bills and versions of bills considered by the U.S. House and Senate. Interactive drill down allows an analyst to see an overview and then focus on an area of interest. I like their use of horizontal scrolling – a technique entirely undervalued in visualization in my opinion.

This tool could be a lobbyist’s dream – or nightmare if the public starts to see what really goes into the laws that govern modern democracies.  Following on their social data expertise, Many Bills lets visitors create, save, and share collections of bills that are of interest.     Check it out for yourself at http://manybills.researchlabs.ibm.com/

The slick tour will get you started on analyzing this fascinating data for yourself, or check out my sample collection below on Canada and the environment. 

Monday, April 5, 2010

Visualization Hall of Shame April 2010

I’m settled at my new job, and I’m looking forward to getting back to this blog now and then.  I plan to feature critiques in the form of “Hall of Shame” and “Hall of Fame” examples of visualization each month.  I hope for more “Hall of Fame” examples, but it depends on what I come across over the month.  This instalment: poorly designed pie charts.

Pie charts generally are not very useful other than to give a vague idea of relative size. We just aren’t that good at reading angles precisely. Adjacency, colour, the absolute angle, and other factors all confound our ability to read pie charts. Add to that the frequent use of ‘visual bling’ such as 3D perspective which makes it virtually impossible to use the charts for anything other than eye candy. Even if pie charts are useful, the metaphor is that they are pieces of pie. Thus the pieces generally add up to one pie. This point is, unsurprisingly, lost on Fox News. One might expect better from journalists, whose job is ostensibly to inform the public on matters of importance. Even more disappointing is the second chart, from Business Objects, the `business intelligence’ arm of SAP – this is a company that makes visual interfaces as their core business, yet their own pie chart makes no sense at all. Shame!

foxpie bo-pie-chart-large

I don’t claim to even understand the data underlying these charts, but if I had to guess, I’d say perhaps the questions asked about each data item were independent.  That is, 70% of people asked “Do you back Palin?” replied “yes”, and 63% replied yes to the same question about Huckabee.  In this case, a bar chart would be more appropriate, to understand the relative levels of support.  To get data for a pie chart, the question would have to be “Pick one: Palin, Huckabee, Romney”.