John Goodall

Research Scientist

Cyber Resilience and Intelligence Division

Oak Ridge National Laboratory



What data visualization is not

Wijmo is a company I had never heard of that creates libraries for building user interfaces in HTML5 and Jquery. Some of their widgets are open source, some are commercial.

Wijmo is a complete kit of over 40 UI widgets with everything from interactive menus to rich charts.

Great, another clone of JqueryUI. I bring it up because Chris Bannon, manager at Wijmo was on a recent episode or javascript jabber, a very good podcast on javascript. He was on the show to discuss 'data visualization', and being as that is what I do, I was interested to hear what he had to say. My take, this is someone who is probably an excellent developer, but someone who does not really know what 'data visualization' means.

There are lots of definitions for information visualization, as data visualization is more commonly called. The canonical definition is (Stuart Card):

The use of computer-supported, interactive, visual representations of abstract data to amplify cognition.

More succinctly (Ben Shneiderman):

The purpose of visualization is insight, not pictures.

So the guest started off talking about SVG, their use of HTML5 and Raphael, the need to understand transformations, and data bindings. All good.

Then he started talking about 'gauges', and I cringed a little bit. Here is a typical dashboard from the wijmo demo page. Yikes. That is a whole lot of screen space for very little information. Maybe no one told them that a table is a pretty effective means of communicating a few numbers? I assume he has read his Tufte, since he referenced the Challenger example Tufte always talks about. (Notwithstanding, that Tufte actually got this often cited example wrong.) But he probably hasn't read his Stephen Few, and his insightful rants on poor dashboard design, gauges, and the misinterpretation of data visualization. I love bar charts and scatterplots, but why is a 'data visualization' company perpetuating the use of gauges (it shows a single number - just show the number! or use a bullet chart to add some context in a small space) and pie charts?

Most of the most useful (and coolest) stuff in information visualization is coming from academia and research organizations, and increasingly from data journalists. Why are vendors not getting it? There are some exceptions, most notably Tableau, but there are even widget makers that seem to know a little about visualization, such as Panopticon. There are open source projects for creating rich, interactive visualization, such as Raphael and the increasingly popular d3. Look at the d3 examples for lots of interesting things people are doing with interactive visualization.

And finally, he said something to the effect of 'the best creators of visualizations are developers'. No. That is wrong. I have worked with a lot of excellent developers, but they think like engineers and have no training in information visualization design. InfoVis designers are the creators. They design meaningful visualizations that can facilitate new insights into complex phenomenon. Check out any one of a number of visualizations from the New York Times graphics department, such as: Facebook IPO, Obama's 2013 budget proposal, or the gap in wages between the sexes. Engineers create bad designs all the time, because they are not interaction or visualization designers! Same reason that architects and engineers work together to build a skyscraper. Wijmo, your heart is in the right place, but if you want to claim to be a company that does data visualization, then hire someone who knows about data visualization!