Many Eyes can be better than two

Previously in this blog, on two separate occasions I commented on new web-based services—both available to the public—for exploring and sharing data visually: Swivel and Data360. I welcomed the worthwhile intention of both—to provide a public forum for sharing and discussing insights discovered in data—but I found the visualization capabilities of both rudimentary and in the case of Swivel especially, in some ways ineffectively designed. I believe in the inherent value of information and fully support efforts to make it available in ways that challenge people to think and hone their analytical skills. Upon discovering these fledgling services, I found myself longing for another—one that provided exceptionally well designed visualization tools, which could give this worthwhile venture a better platform for meaningful and eye-opening discoveries and collaboration. Knowing that work in this area was already being done by some of the brightest lights in the information visualization community at IBM Research’s Visual Communication Lab, I hoped that they would step into the breach. Yesterday, my hope was realized in the form of a new service called Many Eyes.

Here’s an excerpt from the site, which describes its objective:

Many Eyes is a bet on the power of human visual intelligence to find patterns. Our goal is to “democratize” visualization and to enable a new social kind of data analysis…

All of us at the Visual Communication Lab are passionate about the potential of data visualization to spark insight. It is that magical moment we live for: an unwieldy, unyielding data set is transformed into an image on the screen, and suddenly the user can perceive an unexpected pattern. As visualization designers we have witnessed and experienced many of those wondrous sparks. But in recent years, we have become acutely aware that the visualizations and the sparks they generate, take on new value in a social setting. Visualization is a catalyst for discussion and collective insight about data.

We all deal with data that we’d like to understand better. It may be as straightforward as a sales spreadsheet or fantasy football stats chart, or as vague as a cluttered email inbox. But a remarkable amount of it has social meaning beyond our selves. When we share it and discuss it, we understand it in new ways.

The same beauty and passion with which the team at the Visual Communication Lab has expressed their intentions can be seen in the service that they provide, and especially in its visualization tools. Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas are the two members of this team whose work I already know and respect. I would expect nothing less from them than the fine collaborative visualization environment that they and their colleagues have created.

As a brand new site, still in its alpha phase, Many Eyes does not already offer everything one might desire when exploring and sharing information visually, but what they do offer is finely crafted, and it extends to a surprisingly large number of visualization types, considering that this is a first release. Even geo-spatial (geographical map based) and treemap displays are included. The charts are things of beauty that don’t resort to the superfluous decoration (3-D bars and pies, garish colors, silly lighting effects, etc.) that is common today in most commercial visualization tools.

Here’s a simple line graph that I created to compare U.S. consumption of apples and oranges (yes, I’m comparing apples and oranges) as it has changed from 1970 until 2003:

Many Eyes Time Series Graph

Notice how your eyes are drawn to the data and how easily you can follow and compare the ups and downs of apple and orange consumption across the years. This is the product of expert design. If you wish to see precise values without going back to the data set, just hover with the mouse over any point along a line and the value appears, but only when you want it, so it doesn’t clutter the graph when you don’t.

To give you an example of the more sophisticated visualizations that Many Eyes offers, here’s a treemap, which compares highway vs. city mileage of vehicles, organized by class and manufacturer:

Many Eyes Treemap Example

I’ll resist the temptation to show more examples, because you’ll have a lot more fun if you go to the site and explore it directly.

Given their commitment to support data exploration as a social event, they have incorporated means for people to share their thoughts verbally as well, by people to post comments and questions in the collaborative spirit of discussion boards and wikis.

Many Eyes doesn’t already do everything you might find useful while exploring data and it certainly isn’t a replacement for robust commercial visual analysis software, but even as a free web service, it already gives you better visualization functionality than most business intelligence software products. In the few minutes that I’ve had so far to explore the site, I listed a few things that I would like to see added or improved, such as the ability to sort categorical items in a graph by value (for example, in a bar graph that shows the consumption of all fruits in 2003, sort the bars by the amount of consumption rather than alphabetically) and the ability to compare data distributions using a box plot. I sent my list to Martin Wattenberg and received a quick reply that both of these features are already on the list for a future release. (Keep in mind that the site was just released in its alpha state.) I suspect that Martin and his colleagues didn’t wait until everything they had planned to include was in the site before previewing it, because the earlier release of Swivel and Data360 made them anxious to show their hand as soon as possible.

The value and extraordinary power of information visualization for analysis is quickly gaining recognition. It’s an exciting field, which is far too often undermined by poorly designed visualizations, which is shown so vividly in most of the dashboards that vendors advertise. A finely crafted visualization service, such as Many Eyes, is a “site” for many sore eyes, thanks to the dedication and skill of the folks at IBM’s Visual Communication Lab.

Take care,

Signature

5 Comments on “Many Eyes can be better than two”


By Tim Graham. January 24th, 2007 at 9:24 pm

I think that the visualisation tools on this site are fantastic, but the public sharing and discussion aspect of it will surely lead to chaos.

Sharing: A quick look through the data sets reveals mostly spurious or poorly described data, data in other languages (that’s fine but they could be grouped as such so that I can see just english, or just chinese if I so choose), “anonymised” data sets and just plain junk data in general.

Discussion: I didn’t read any comments that were particularly insightful!

It would better serve the site if registered users had a sandbox to play in with their own test data, and some method of sorting the wheat from the chaff. For example, it would be better if public visualisations could only be based on “good” data sets published by many-faces.

By Stephen Few. January 24th, 2007 at 10:17 pm

Tim,

Please be sure to pass your feedback on to the folks at Many Eyes as well. The site is in its alpha state and the development team is very open to input.

By Christopher Ashworth. January 25th, 2007 at 9:31 am

“…the public sharing and discussion aspect of it will surely lead to chaos.”

So, let me introduce you to this thing called Wikipedia….

P.S.: This isn’t to say it’s guaranteed to work exactly like, or perhaps even as well as, Wikipedia. But good gracious, has prior work in massive collaboration meant nothing? Even if this brand new system had all the right tweaks in place to most effectively encourage collaboration in the context of data visualization (which of course it doesn’t), effective online communities take time to sort themselves out. It seems wildly premature to predict certain chaos.

P.P.S.: I am entirely uninvolved with this project–just an interested outsider.

By John. February 14th, 2007 at 3:55 pm

I think the collaborative nature of the site–particularly the fact that edited visualizations are included with comments (the first visual commenting system I’ve yet run across)–is one of its strengths and needn’t be a recipe for chaos.

I agree with an earlier commenter who suggested that a sandbox option for new users testing junk data would be helpful.

By Data and the Web » Blog Archive » Pill Bugs, Potato Bugs or Doodlebugs?. November 14th, 2007 at 2:07 pm

[...] If you haven’t checked out what the fine folks at Many Eyes are doing with “community” data visualization, it is well worth a peek. I took a look at one of their recent blog posts today regarding the new map visualizations they are offering. Very nice stuff indeed. [...]