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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sharing Data Visualization

IBM's site lets people collaborate to creatively visualize and discuss data on fast food, Jesus' apostles, greenhouse-gas trends, and more.

By Kate Greene

IBM is showing that there's more to the social Internet than just sharing pictures and video clips. The company has launched a new website, called Many Eyes, with the hope of adding a social aspect to data visualizations like maps, network diagrams, and scatter plots. The site's users already include Christian bloggers, nutritionists, and professors.

Many Eyes teaches people how to build their own visualizations (a simple tutorial can be found here) so that they can dive into complex, multidimensional data. Since its launch in January, the site has amassed nearly 2,000 visualizations that illustrate, for example, the carbon emission of cars and the nutritional information of food on a McDonald's menu. For example, by illustrating numbers graphically, users see how Big Macs compare with double cheeseburgers in terms of calories, fat, and sodium--differences that might be harder to spot on a chart of numbers.

Many Eyes was developed by Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viegas, researchers at IBM's Visual Communication Lab, in Cambridge, MA. To be sure, Many Eyes is not the first, or even the most powerful, data-visualization tool available. Spotfire, for instance, is well-known software that businesses use to visualize and analyze trends. But what makes Many Eyes novel is that it's explicitly designed to be a social site for sharing visualizations and analysis; it's essentially the Flickr of data plots.

While the field of data visualization in general isn't new, it has seen a sort of rebirth in the past few years thanks to the availability of software tools that explore data sets, as well as the ubiquity of data sets themselves, says Ben Shneiderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, in College Park. "It's one of those things that after 15 years, it's an overnight success." Recently, Shneiderman says, data visualizations have gone from static charts commonly used in PowerPoint presentations to dynamic displays of multidimensional data. "Suddenly," he says, "we've been given a new eye to see things that we've never seen before."

The IBM software was built using standard software architectures, says Wattenberg; the visualizations are displayed using Java, and there are a few somewhat sophisticated algorithms that crunch numbers and produce the graph layouts. Ultimately, he says, he and Viegas wanted a simple, immersive experience. "The more that it becomes almost gamelike in its level of activity, the more fun it becomes."

Within days of Many Eyes going live, the researchers saw a big spike in traffic from a user-generated visualization. A user named "crossway" had uploaded a data set of names from the New Testament and how often they occurred near one another in the text. The user chose to visualize the data using a network diagram; the result was essentially an illustration of the social network of Jesus and his apostles. Crossway posted the network diagram on his or her well-trafficked Christian blog, and soon awareness of the visualization moved from the Christian community into the technology community, thanks to an appearance on the popular blog BoingBoing.net.

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