Data Salon #1: Visualization

Last week kicked off the first in a series of “Data Salons” we are holding here at Metamarkets. The goal, as Michael Driscoll put it, is “to bring people together and talk about cool stuff, and keep it small”. This is something we had been thinking about doing for a while and thanks to the overwhelming response from everyone involved, it was a real success.

We had a great lineup of speakers for the first topic in the series: data visualization. Following our post on the rise of interactive data visualization, we decided to bring together some of the people designing visualizations as well as the people behind the frameworks used to build them, so they could share with us some of the projects they are working on and how they approach the problems they are trying to solve.

At the crossroads of art & science, design & engineering

People working in data visualization come from various different backgrounds and it is interesting to see how they embrace the engineering and design challenges involved. We see engineers becoming designers as well as designers embracing the engineering side of data visualization. At many levels it is both an art and a science, and the variety of people who attended the salon are a great example of that.

Mary Becica described how her architecture background influences how she approaches data visualization problems. She starts by putting the data into context, and letting that context inform the visual representation to give the data. Too often people start with a preconceived visual without giving extra thought to what form the data should take.

Mike Migurski gave us a glimpse into OpenStreetMap and the various projects he is working on to help create maps that go beyond a standard Google maps overlay. His objective is to design maps that are suitable to many types of overlays without distracting from or interfering with the information that is being surfaced. Again, setting the context is fundamental and the work that goes into the base map layer plays an important role in defining that context. From the subtle color palettes used to enhance topographic relief all the way to labeling heuristics, striking the right balance is very much an art, and scaling that to a wide range of resolutions and sizes requires quite a bit of engineering wizardry.

Telling a story

Whether designing an interactive book or building dynamic infographics, we ultimately want to tell a story through the data, and visualization is the key to how we expose those insights.

Bret Victor walked us through the playful interactive graphics he created for “Our Choice”,  Al Gore’s interactive book on climate change. Bret shared with us his insights on how to engage the audience and guide them through the data with limited effort, reducing the frictions to discovery and learning.

With the ability to create ever richer interactive experiences it becomes critical not to drown the user in gratuitous forms of interaction, but focus on essential mechanisms that help to understand and explore the data. This becomes even more important when designing for mobile interfaces. Mobile devices allow for richer types of interactions, but they are often less obvious to the user. It is critical to provide hints and visual cues so the user can maximize their experience of interactive graphics.

Expanding on this idea, Nick Bilton recounted some of his experiences at the New York Times R&D labs. There he was able to leverage the trove of data available at the New York Times to visualize how information spreads through various (social) networks. Through his work Nick has uncovered many interesting and surprising patterns, but sifting through such large volumes of data can be quite a challenge. Recent improvements in frameworks and visualization tools have started to make this easier.

Evolution of visualization frameworks

There is no one better to talk about these frameworks than the authors that created them. We brought together Jeff Heer, Mike Bostock and Nicolas Garcia Belmonte for a freeform panel to discuss everything from prefuse, protovis and d3 to infovis and philogl. It was a great occasion to learn about what motivated them, the evolution of the different frameworks and the type of problems they were trying to solve along the way.

Building on this line of toolkits, Vadim Ogievetsky has developed DVL, a reactive visualization framework. He demonstrated how easy it can be to build multi-faceted visualizations for high-dimensional real-time data feeds. The toolkit abstracts many of the dependencies between data and representation, without losing the flexibility of the underlying graphical framework. His work is a key element to the Metamarkets platform.

Looking forward to data salon #2

All said, this event was a very enriching experience, thanks to the impressive list of attendees and fantastic presenters. We also want to thank all of you who helped out, including Nisha Pathak for handling the logistics. We had an excellent response to this salon and are looking forward to hosting more events like this.

For more information about the presenters’ work check out their sites here: