cscheid, 01 Nov 2011

Last week’s VisWeek finished with Amanda Cox’s amazing capstone talk about the visualization work that goes on at the New York Times. As everyone in the room was rightfully being blown away by the incredible productivity of their graphics department, Tim Lebo asked: How many papers could NYT submit in 3 weeks?

This same sentiment echoed in the hallways after her talk. Now, I don’t know what this number is; but I know what it should be. It should be zero! NYT obviously has much to say about visualization, but there is an important distinction. I think it is important to not confuse the top-of-the-line visualization practices as seen in the NYT with what we do at VisWeek. Let me be more specific.

For example, I see at least two reasons for design study papers at VisWeek. First, these might offer a comprehensive view of the design space for a particular type of data or visual primitive. A great example of this type of paper this year was Claessen and van Wijk’s Flexible Linked Axes for Multivariate Data Visualization. As Jarke put it in his talk, one of the questions design study papers should strive to answer is “is there all that is?”. In other words: have we looked at the entire design space? Why or why not? Those are typically research questions, and deserve papers. The other reason for a design study paper at VisWeek is to highlight an especially important area of current research in domain sciences, and point at directions of future work. I almost see these papers as provocations: they show how other areas might need visualization, and how our research might use those other areas’ problems and research questions as framing devices for our own problems and research questions. Miriah Meyer’s recent biological visualization papers are the perfect examples of this kind of research program.

Although I have not asked the NYT directly, I think it is fair to claim that their graphics department does not, and should not, care about either of the categories above. The NYT is in the business of informing people in a timely manner, as truthfully, thoroughly and compellingly as possible. We now know that visualizations are an integral aspect of this process, and it is rewarding and stimulating to see visualizations executed with the skill and speed of which only the NYT seems to be capable. But notice that neither of these says anything about research in visualization!

We are in the business of understanding visualizations: why, when, and how they work. We are in the business of making it easier to produce good, compelling visualizations. We are even in the business of screaming to the rest of the world, at the top of our lungs, that they should be using visualizations, and not stupid Excel tables of numeric values. As our field becomes more practical and has more impact, it is important to keep in mind, however, that we are not in the business of actually producing visualizations, however fun and rewarding that might be. Bringing brilliant practitioners such as Amanda Cox to our conference is the ideal way of interacting with visualization as it is practiced. Thinking that the work which goes on at the NYT should become our research is not.