Viégas on Visual Analysis of Social Networks

What a treat! I had had the honour of meeting and spending the last two days chatting with Fernanda Viégas from the Visual Communications Lab. fernanda.gifHer work has been and continues to be inspirational for me personally and to the information visualisation community more substantially. She presented a tantalizing talk at the Social Network/ing conference at OISE/UofT. ‘Visualizing and Analyzing Social Networks’ quickly demonstrated a small facet of Many Eyes to a new audience and gave us a sneak preview of a new tool soon to be available through ManyEyes called PivotGraph. The logic of the PivotGraph is one of those ah-ha moments – it makes all the sense in the world, but leave it to Fernanda and Martin Wattenberg to visualize the problem, and come up with a brilliant way to solve it. Consider that social networks have traditionally been visualized in two ways: the node-link map and the matrix. The common node-link method is very intuitive, but also becomes quickly cluttered and loses visualization value as the scale of the network being mapped grows. The second is the representative matrix, which scales very well but sacrifices intuition for clarity. Realizing that there had to be a way of combining the strengths and minimizing the weaknesses, the PivotGraph hybridize these two forms using a collapsible node-link metaphor that, interactively aggregates like nodes and allows for focus on individual vectors. It’s nothing short of amazing to see in action! As always, the carefully visualized transition animations of the Visual Communications Lab make the products particularly visually and experientially impressive. I feel compelled to note that this is not to detract from the intrinsic analytical power of these applications or to suggest visual superficialities, but instead to observe and emphasize the importance of experience within a visual analysis product. This is something that is reinforced throughout the info viz community in particular the powerful effect of tweening and time-lapse in Hans Rosling’s gapMinder to appreciate change over time.

Fernanda also gave a quick user story that demonstrates a Visual Communication Lab success. One of their early users (two days after they went live) posted a dataset and visualization of name collocation from the New Testament.

He was quite taken with the results and reported these on his blog with accompanying screenshots. He was shortly overwhelmed with hits and stories picked up on the traditional media. In fact, there was even a video uploaded to YouTube demonstrating another user’s interaction with the visualisation. Fernanda emphasized that this was not because of the novelty of the tool or its product, but because of the content and result of the visualization itself. She stresses, and I can certainly attest to this myself, that we are truly starting to see the tremendous value of information visualization when we make new realizations because we are able to see the data in new ways. When we are able not just to present findings in the clearest and effective manner, but when we are able to use the visual tools for analysis. ManyEyes is pushing the envelope of PopViz!

More information on the PivotGraph is available at the Visual Communication Lab site – and keep your eyes on the ManyEyes toolset for availability – I sense that this is a tool that is crossing an interesting visual boundary and will shift the way in which we consider the object being represented as much as how we choose to represent it.

I apologize to Fernanda for my rather gushing post about her talk, as she is very earnestly seeking constructive criticism of ManyEyes – but I do promise to share thoughts on the effectiveness of PivotGraphs when I get my chance to play with it online. As for ManyEyes current offerings – they simply beg us to come up with data to visualize and if you haven’t already, I hope that you will take an opportunity to enjoy some cool data visualization with any sets that you happen to have kicking around.

Update: BTW, Fernanda, as I mentioned in a previous entry, blogged a number of the talks from InfoVis this year. Her recap of her own panel is well worth a look.

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