Wednesday, May 14, 2008

information visualization for the people

Nathan from FlowingData just blogged about a post I missed a couple weeks back by Todd at A Beautiful WWW concerning one of my favorite questions: Why isn't data visualization more popular?

Serendipitously, this was the central topic of my Comparative Media Studies Master's thesis, Information Visualization for the People, which I am happy to say was submitted and accepted this past Friday. Getting it written was also the reason for the utter lack of posts here for the last few months--hopefully its completion signifies an end to that dry spell. Although, in addition to figuring out life beyond grad school, I do have some serious Grand Theft Auto related business to attend to...

In any case, for those who are interested in checking it out, the thesis will be available permanently online at the CMS thesis website (along with the work of the other fine folks at CMS, covering a wide range of topics) once they get around to posting it. In the mean time, I've temporarily posted a PDF copy here, and I intend to "webify" it in a more mutable form at some point in the relatively near future. I welcome any and all criticism, as it represents a fairly specific take on the state of information visualization today, but draws on a lot of existing infovis research (including some that I've blogged about here in the past). I by no means consider it a definitive document, and parts of it are certainly weak, but I want to make it available in the hopes that it contributes to the popular discourse we are starting to see around these issues.

Here's the abstract:

The design of information visualization, defined as the interactive,
graphical presentation of data, is on the verge of a significant paradigm shift brought on by the continued maturation of the Information Age. Its traditional role as a scientific tool deployed by rigorous data analysts is in the process of expanding to include more mainstream uses and users, reflecting fundamental changes to the role of information and data in our increasingly digital society. However, visualization design theory remains rooted in earlier conceptions of its use, largely ignoring the needs of this new, non-expert audience. Accordingly, this thesis attempts to re-contextualize information visualization as a public-facing practice, and explores ways in which its design can shift from being described as “by experts, for experts” to a new characterization as “for the people.”

Many thanks to my thesis committee, Nick Montfort, Fernanda Viegas, and Martin Wattenberg, for giving me great advice and not laughing me out of the room after reading it!