The magic of data visualization for everyone

By Ross Dawson on January 24, 2007 | Permalink

Every day I am amazed afresh by the transformative power of the Web. Today I have discovered Many Eyes, a site hosted by IBM’s AlphaWorks. It combines open participation with a wonderful set of visualization tools. As such anyone can upload data sets, and then create sophisticated visual representations of those data sets, including scatterplots, tree maps, histograms, bubble diagrams, network maps and far more. Anyone can then either reuse the data sets, create new visualizations, add comments, or blog about the visualizations. To try it out I created in around one minute a bubble diagram representation of the frequency of words in the English language (See below for the non-interactive diagram – I won’t link directly, as I think generating the diagram is rather resource-intensive – have a look at the visualization gallery that includes it). In the first edition of my book Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships, which was published in 2000, I wrote about both data visualization and concept visualization (which uses visual representations to convey concepts rather than information). Both of these will be fundamental in a world in which we are swamped with information. While I haven’t spent as much time on visualization over the last years, I am shifting back towards this space, not least in facilatating clients in easily understanding and responding to strategic issues.
In Tim O’Reilly’s very interesting post about the site, he asked Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viegas, the people who conceived Many Eyes, about their inspiration. Fernanda calls it ‘“social data analysis,” in which “playful, social exploration of data leads to serious analysis”. Martin says that their goal is to “democratize” visualization. These are seriously valuable tools being provided for free to the community at large, where one person can use the tools for their own purposes, then have their ideas be taken up and developed further by others. I’ve long used AlphaWorks as one of the best and earliest examples of open innovation. It’s great to see them both offering this kind of value to the community, and have this fully integrated into their business models. Note that another social data visualization site, Swivel, launched before Many Eyes – it doesn’t appear to have as rich visual functionality, as Brian Dennis notes, but has far more data sets uploaded for people to play with.