Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Visualization of Data

I learned about Many Eyes, the brainchild of scientists at IBM's lab in Cambridge, Mass., from my friend Adam. It's a Web tool that anyone can use to create visualizations of data. As a rabid fan of Edward Tufte (speaker, anti-PowerPoint crusader, and author of several books on the visualization of data, including The Visual Display of Quantitative Information), I had to pass it along.

There are already several visualizations on the site. Here's one that I found quite compelling, because it uses a "network diagram" to depict visually the medal count at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing:

Note: If the graphic does not appear above, it's because Many Eyes is moving databases around. I've had problems signing in and performing other basic tasks – IBM may not have devoted enough server space to Many Eyes.

I think it would be easier to understand if the countries and the sports were better differentiated, and I posted a comment to that effect (I accidentally went down as "Anonymous," which was annoying because anonymous posting is a pet peeve of mine). If you're looking for a specific country, you can select a sport in which you know that country medaled, and all of the countries with medals in the sport light up; you'll then have an easier time of finding the country. (Of course, the same is true the other way around.)

I also think this visualization would be improved if you could find the actual data by rolling over a country or sport; for instance, if you hold the mouse over "Boxing" a pop-up window appears to list the countries that medaled in that sport. But these are minor quibbles, and I'm not even sure if it's possible to make those changes.

I love that you can pull apart different elements to get a better handle on the information. And the interactivity doesn't stop there: this is also a forum, by which IBM accomplishes two things. First, it is better enabled to improve this tool and its subsets through user feedback. Second, IBM provides an additional service to its users: free consultation from the thousands of other users who frequent the site. Many Eyes thereby builds a solid user base.

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