Web 2.0 increases demand for data visualization tools

Visualization tools becoming more widely available and easier to use

Government database and Web services developers are facing increasing pressure to find new and more effective ways to represent and present complex data patterns graphically.

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And although visualization tools, capable of rendering layers of related data in a single view, are becoming more widely available and simpler to use, most still require a high level of expertise, visualization experts said at the Open Government and Innovation conference in Washington.

Visualization plays two important roles, Ben Shneiderman, founding director of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory and professor at the University of Maryland, said July 21. “It supports discovery,” he said, by enabling people to see relationships between seemingly unrelated data. And it helps people communicate the meaning and importance of related information in a compelling way he said.

“But it takes expertise,” he said.

“We want to get beyond user friendly [visualizations], and look at what is it in the design that enables ten- or twenty[fold] improvement in performance,” he said. “Vision isn’t just an input device,” Shneiderman said, but needs to be thought of as “a tool for thinking and recognizing patterns.”

Advances in the application of geospatial information and the evolution of mashups — software scripts that link different data sets — have helped turn maps into powerful digital visualization tools. Those tools are being used to illustrate everything from changes in demographic trends across the United States to the availability of emergency resources.

Increasingly, those tools are also allowing government agencies and independent developers to make government data available for people in new ways to use on their own.

Andrew Turner, chief technology officer for FortiusOne/GeoCommons, pointed to a examples where people can examine the paths of hurricanes at different times over the past century or visually analyze commuting times of public buses at different times of the day. He cited the recent work in the District of Columbia, known collectively as Apps for Democracy, where dozens of data feeds allowed independent entrepreneurs to assemble a variety of online services, such as localized crime data, for interested persons.

Susan Adams, chief technology officer for Microsoft’s federal sector, pointed to other visual tools, such as Photosynth, which lets people upload photographs which can be positioned in three-dimensional relationship to one another, or on maps.

However, the ability to present relational or performance data, which don’t always have a geospatial component, remains a challenge for information resource managers, Shneiderman said.

Shneiderman highlighted a variety of visualization techniques, many of which have been in use for some time, which can enhance analysis and decision making. Among them are Treemaps, TimeSearch, Patternfinder, Lifelines, Social Action, and NodeXL.

For example, Treemaps reveal patterns of elements within a node, by displaying proportionately-sized, color coded rectangles in larger rectangles. He showed a Treemap that illustrates stock market performances of individual companies in each of several industries where different colorings immediately make exceptional performances stand out. (A sample can be found at www.cs.umd.edu/hcil/treemap).

Another example is the NodeXL Template, an open source extension for Microsoft Excel 2007. It uses a structured workbook template to create graphical representations of connected data. (A sample can be found at www.codeplex.com/nodexl.)

However, many visualization tools still provide “fuzzy microscopes and telescopes” when it comes to measuring performance, Shneiderman said. In particular, he noted the difficult computer network administrators have had finding visualization tools that help them understand the status and performance of their networks.

Federal Computer Week's owner, the 1105 Government Information Group, sponsors the conference.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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