Around a year ago Swivel.com was the first “social visualization” (a.k.a. collaborative visualization) site to capture attention in the blogosphere. At about the same time, I learned about a similar site, Data360.com, which is not as well known. Not long afterwards, Many-Eyes.com emerged to set the standard for rich and meaningful collaborations between people about data, graphically represented. Until Swivel and Data360 set themselves apart by addressing a particular audience and set of needs better than Many-Eyes, their worth remains questionable. Why bother with all three sites when one is superior by far? In the world of technology, however, every good idea must be beat to death by countless competing attempts to address the same need, very few of which actually take the time to understand the need or develop the expertise to respond to it effectively. Graphwise.com, a new social visualization site now in beta, is a case in point.
I realize that a little competition is good for the marketplace to the degree that it applies pressure on companies to do their best and to price their products and services reasonably. When the marketplace is flooded with competitors who focus on seizing an opportunity without understanding it, however, the marketplace becomes unnecessarily complicated. In the book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz convincingly argues that, while having a few things to choose from fosters freedom and is thus useful, there is a threshold beyond which choices becomes counter-productive and a burden. In the developed world, and certainly in the United States, we have become buried under of over-abundance of choices, forced to waste our time choosing for an endless array of competing alternatives, unless we take dramatic steps to simplify our lives. We don’t need more choices; we need fewer but better choices.
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, back to Graphwise.com. What is it that this new site is offering us? After searching through their entire site, here are the only answers to this question that I could find:
GraphWise aims to provide the public with the tabular data available on the Internet, provided by commercial sources, and uploaded by users. By registering, you’ll be able to save the data you find and the graphs you customize for later use. In the near future, you’ll be able to publish data to our search engine for public use.
GraphWise is primarily a search engine. That is, it searches the web and detects data tables in all sorts of web pages and data files. It is hoped that GraphWise will help you find the data you need more quickly, because it is visual. GraphWise does the searching through millions of rows and columns so you don’t have to. Then it “slices and dices” the data it finds to create meaningful plots of that information.
On the surface, Graphwise appears to be much like the other social visualization sites, differing perhaps in one respect: they automatically search the Web looking for data tables to store on their site and make available in the form of graphs. The benefit they offer? To “help you find the data you need more quickly, because it is visual” and to relieve you of work by automatically slicing and dicing the data “to create meaningful plots of that information.” If they are actually able to do this, they might have something useful to offer. The problem is, I don’t think they can. And even if they’re able to do this, the graphing functionality that they offer to help us explore and make sense of data is god-awful.
As a data visualization expert, no one needs to convince me that visual representations of data are powerful and useful, but they are not powerful and useful for every possible task. How does a collection of thousands or even millions of graphs make it easier for people to “find the data they need more quickly”? I’m unable to imagine any way that it can. The only way that Graphwise appears to support searching for particular data is in the same way that every other site does: by means of text searches for key words.
Is it really possible to automatically search the Web for data and turn it into meaningful graphs, without human intervention? Perhaps at some point in the future, but I don’t think we’re there yet. At most, they can make a few guesses about what they find, such as by looking for labels that look like dates and then providing a line graph to display it as a time series.
Below I’ve selected a sample table that Graphwise apparently found on the Web. Here’s the view that it provided in a list of several tables that was presented when I searched on the keyword “fuel”:
This preview of the table is a bit confusing. The data for year 1990 is being displayed as column labels, every column has the same overall label of “Oil Space Heating,” and the years are in a random order. The suggested graphs appearing on the right exhibit a rather unintelligent “slicing and dicing” of the data to find meaningful ways to visualize it.
By clicking the “…view…” link below the table, a more meaningfully structured table appeared in a popup window:
Based on this arrangement of the data, a relatively intelligent parsing program should be able to discern that I have time-series data ranging from 1980 through 1997, with several missing years.
I clicked on the first suggested graph, and what then appeared was a plot area that kept bouncing back and forth between the following two pie charts, which I couldn’t figure out how to stop:
The chart on the left displays a part-to-whole relationship that breaks 1992 into two slices: “Liquefied petroleum gas1″ and “Compressed natural gas.” Now I’m really confused, because none of this data can be found in the table pictured above that this graph was supposedly based on. The chart on the right makes more sense, in that the data that it displays actually exists in the table, but a part-to-whole relationship that includes four U.S. geographical regions along with the entire U.S.A. puts us back in the realm of nonsense. So much for “meaningful plots.” According to the site:
Today, GraphWise has over 2 million tables and 150 million graphs. We plan to reach the one billion graph mark in the coming months.
Here again we have a dramatic example of how more is not better.
Rather than relying on the dysfunctional smarts of Graphwise to find and display data for me, I decided to upload some data of my own to see if I could do something meaningful with it. I found a good data set at Many-Eyes, downloaded it, and then uploaded it to Graphwise. Here’s a portion of the data, shown in the table that Graphwise created:
As you can see, it includes various measures related to counties in the state of Virginia. In Graphwise, once you’ve uploaded a data set, instructions on the screen tell you to “Click on the plot icons in the results to build a graph.” I couldn’t find any plot icons, but after looking around for several minutes, somehow I managed (and I honestly don’t know how) to get the following graph to appear:
This graph combines measures of population, per capita income, and medium household income per county using grouped bars. What you see here is Graphwise’s default formatting of a bar graph. What this graph makes it easiest to do is compare the magnitude of a particular county’s population, per capita income, and medium household income, which doesn’t really make any sense. Ignoring this point for the moment, I decided to try to improve the horrible formatting defaults. Here are the options that I had to work with:
As you can see, the options that are provided don’t really address formatting, except that I can turn off the 3D rendering of the bars. Frustrated that I couldn’t improve the formatting in the many ways that I wished, I decided to do the one thing that I could: remove the 3D.
I got more than I bargained for. The background was automatically turned black, and although the third dimension of depth was removed from the bars, the silly lighting effects were not. As you can see, this isn’t much better. It is not a pleasant picture that would incline one to study the data.
I noticed that “themes” could be applied to the graph, so I decided to explore this feature. Here’s a sampling of a few of the many themes that Graphwise offers:
In order, from left to right and top to bottom, these styles are named 1) black, white, and red, 2) arctic cool, 3) Easter egg, and, believe it or not, and 4) clean. As you can see, the themes provide a bevy of really bad ways to design a graph. Just for fun, I decided to go all out and take advantage of the one other visual design option that Graphwise offers: the ability to put an image in the background of the graph, which they call a watermark. From the many pictures of animals, buildings, furniture, etc., I decided to dress up the arctic cool version of my graph by appropriately pairing it with a penguin.
I particularly like how I was able to make the penguin’s beak reach for the high value of 100,000. This might look cool (arctic cool, even) , but it is an example of dysfunctionality at its worst.
Surely I was missing much of what I could do to create a meaningful graph, but I couldn’t find any instructions on the site to point me in the right direction. Perhaps the site provides examples to demonstrate the merits of their graphs. I took a quick tour of the graphs that were featured on the site, and here’s an example of what I found:
Here’s the description that accompanied this graph:
After 2000 legal immigrants to the United States number approximately 1,000,000 legal immigrants/year of which about 600,000 are Change of Status immigrants who already are in the U.S. Legal immigrants to the United States now are at their highest level ever at over 35,000,000 legal immigrants. Here the list shows average number of legal immigrants/year immigrating from 2000 to 2004, the number of foreigh [sic] born immigrants from 2000 census, Year 2004 foreign born and 2010 projection using an average of number of immigrants/ year.
The quality of the description seems well-matched to the graph. This is what they chose to feature?! I’m particularly amused by the fact that one of the countries—Ireland—is represented differently than the others for some unknown reason, which you can barely make out as a thin pink line. Notice how the year 2010 percentages (the right-most group of bars) are all pancaked at the bottom of the scale that extends to 1,900,000. Also notice how there is no visual delineation between the five sets of bars along the X-axis.
So the question remains, “Why do we need another social visualization site when Many-Eyes.com is already doing it so well?” There is perhaps room for other such site to address a different audience or unique set of needs, but Graphwise doesn’t seem to do this. What I see here is the efforts of another group of people to exploit an opportunity without understanding that opportunity and without expertise in the technologies that can be used to address it. Using Graphwise would be an unwise choice. I recommend that you avoid it—at least for now.