cscheid, 16 Jan 2012

Say you are given a graph and are told: “Tell me everything that is interesting about this graph”. What do you do? We visualization folks like to believe that good pictures show much of what is interesting about data; this series of posts will carve a path from graph data to good graph plots. The path will take us mostly through well-known research results and techniques; the trick here is I will try to motivate the choices from first principles, or at least as close to it as I can manage.

One of the ideas I hope to get across is that, when designing a visualization, it pays to systematically consider the design space. Jock MacKinlay’s 1986 real breakthrough was not the technique for turning a relational schema into a drawing specification. It was the realization that this systematization was possible and desirable. That his technique was formal enough to be encoded in a computer program is great gravy, but the basic insight is deeper.

Of course, the theory and practice of visualization in general is not ready for a complete systematization, but there are portions ripe for the picking. In this series, I want to see what I can do about graph visualization.

Why graphs?

Graphs have enough structure to make this discussion possible and interesting, while not being so complicated that the specific lessons they have to teach us would not translate well to other domains.

They also happen to be the expertise of the research department where I am. I have spent a good amount of time in the last two years learning the graph drawing landscape, and this seems like an opportunity for a braindump.

What to draw

The first rule of visualization is to **draw all there is, but no more. This goal is usually not attainable.

But as we will see, keeping the rule in mind helps us navigate the design space. When we are aware of the rule, the process of thinking how we are bending it gives natural descriptions of the trade-offs. It also raises the question “have we missed any spots”, and I think this is a fundamental question to ask.

What not to draw

I am a huge fan of data visualization. Often, it gives the most effective path from data to insight.

Still, if we are to defend visualization as a first-class citizen in data analysis, we have to be honest about it. One of my pet peeves is that some visualizations suffer from “Something must be done; visualization is something; therefore, we must visualize it” trap. So here’s another rule: use visualization only when writing an algorithm would be harder, or not as effective.

As a corollary of this rule, visualizations forever must be judged against a moving goalpost. Humans will continually become better at solving problems with algorithms; visualization as a field exists to help from the other side of the fence.

Incidentally, this is why “automatic outlier detection” is always a big red flag for me: outliers are by definition things which fall outside a model. “Outlier detection” as performed by a computer is, necessarily, a model. Good visualization techniques don’t try to detect outliers: if the goal of the task is to detect outliers, and the outliers could be detected effectively by a computer, then a visualization wouldn’t be the right tool to find them! (Now, replace “outliers” with “feature”, and think about machine learning as it relates to visualization practices.)

Roadmap, or, where are we headed?

These will be some of our stops along the way:

  • What are you actually showing? Network diagrams vs. matrix diagrams
  • What do you want to show? Distance embedding and energy minimization
  • Stress majorization, and breaking the $O( V ^3)$ barrier
  • Edge bundling: pesky visuals, always getting in the way

Some possible interludes:

  • Reading Bertin
  • “Your drawings are hairballs! Graph drawing doesn’t work for large graphs!” A quick digression into lower bounds}
  • Where are your users?!
  • A visualization blog with so few pictures! Isn’t that ironic?

If you have a particular request, let me know. Much of this is shaping up as I write it.