John Siever
John Siever
Senior Journal Production Editor, Wiley

I recently attended a talk by Anselm Spoerri where he outlined some basic principles of information visualization. Spoerri is a professor in the School of Communication at Rutgers University. His research and teaching focus is on Information Visualization, Information Retrieval & Knowledge Management, Multimedia Interfaces & Retrieval, and Computer Vision. The goal of Spoerri’s work is simple:

 

“Use human perceptual capabilities to gain insights into large data sets that are difficult to extract using standard query languages.”

 

Throughout his presentation, Spoerri emphasized the fact that human vision is an extremely robust and sensitive channel of information consumption. Humans are able to recognize small differences and variations in images when actively engaged, but also when passively engaged. This capability allows humans to identify and evaluate large amounts of visually presented data and information much more effectively than raw data. By using simple ideas such as position, color, motion, size, angle, etc. to represent variables of data, we can leverage human visual predisposition for clear communication, discovery, and insight.

 

In addition to this visual predisposition, another key point in Spoerri’s talk was the difference between Infographics and Information Visualization, specifically, that Infographics are static while Information Visualization is dynamic. Infographics present information, data, and knowledge very effectively as a narrative, but they do not allow the viewer to manipulate the variables of the data to uncover other insights. Information Visualization allows a viewer to become a user of data. They can interact and adjust the data variables to see results under different parameters as they see fit.

 

Spoerri went on to provide many good examples of basic visualization principles and Information Visualization. Some of the best examples came from the New York Times, in particular the following "How Different Groups Spend Their Day" interactive graphic:

 

NYT interactive infographic
Source: The New York Times. Click to access interactive graphic

This example in particular shows what can be achieved when basic principles and dynamic functionality are combined. But, most importantly, Spoerri made it clear through this and other examples that there is a simple idea underpinning everything: without organized and standardized data to apply these principles and tools to, it is hard to achieve much.

 

Open and carefully organized and standardized research data repositories in different disciplines are the life blood of data-based research. They are the fuel that can drive the engine of discovery. The most exciting and important data in all the worldaren't going to yield any insight when basic visual principles and information visualization tools are applied if they are messy, and located in various formats, and places.

 

So, it's crucial to keep these three tenets of human visual capabilities, information visualization concepts, and open, organized data repositories in mind and they will be a guide to presenting research clearly. Most importantly, they will allow others the chance to interact and understand the data from various perspectives and disciplines.