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Lines and Bubbles and Bars, Oh My! New Ways to Sift Data
An experimental Web site allows users to upload the data they want to visualize, then try sophisticated tools to generate interactive displays.
source: New York Times


Data can be organized many ways on Many Eyes. Above is a chart of Olympic medals.
Data can be organized many ways on Many Eyes. Above is a chart of Olympic medals.
source: New York Times



First Published: August 30, 2008-- People share their videos on YouTube and their photos at Flickr. Now they can share more technical types of displays: graphs, charts and other visuals they create to help them analyze data buried in spreadsheets, tables or text.

At an experimental Web site, Many Eyes, (www.many-eyes.com), users can upload the data they want to visualize, then try sophisticated tools to generate interactive displays. These might range from maps of relationships in the New Testament to a display of the comparative frequency of words used in speeches by Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

The site was created by scientists at the Watson Research Center of I.B.M. in Cambridge, Mass., to help people publish and discuss graphics in a group. Those who register at the site can comment on one another's work, perhaps visualizing the same information with different tools and discovering unexpected patterns in the data.

Collaboration like this can be an effective way to spur insight, said Pat Hanrahan, a professor of computer science at Stanford whose research includes scientific visualization. "When analyzing information, no single person knows it all," he said. "When you have a group look at data, you protect against bias. You get more perspectives, and this can lead to more reliable decisions."

The site is the brainchild of Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda B. Viégas, two I.B.M. researchers at the Cambridge lab. Dr. Wattenberg, a computer scientist and mathematician, says sophisticated visualization tools have historically been the province of professionals in academia, business and government.

"We want to bring visualization to a whole new audience," he said -- to people who have had relatively few ways to create and discuss such use of data.

"The conversation about the data is as important as the flow of data from the database," he said.

The Many Eyes site, begun in January 2007, offers 16 ways to present data, from stack graphs and bar charts to diagrams that let people map relationships. TreeMaps, showing information in colorful rectangles, are among the popular tools.

Initially, the site offered only analytical tools like graphs for visualizing numerical data. "The interesting thing we noticed was that users kept trying to upload blog posts, and entire books," Dr. Viégas said, so the site added techniques for unstructured text. One tool, called an interleaved tag cloud, lets users compare side by side the relative frequencies of the words in two passages -- for instance, President Bush's State of the Union addresses in 2002 and 2003.

Almost all the tools are interactive, allowing users to change parameters, zoom in or out or show more information when the mouse moves over an image, Dr. Wattenberg said.

Users can embed images and links to their visualizations in their Web sites or blogs, just as they can embed YouTube videos. "It's great that people can paste in a YouTube video of cats" on their blogs, Dr. Viégas said. "So why not a visual that gives you some insight into the sea of data that surrounds us? I might find one thing; someone else, something completely different, and that's where the conversation starts."

Rich Hoeg, a technology manager who lives in New Hope, Minn., and has a blog at econtent.typepad.com, was so taken with the possibilities for group collaboration that he wrote a tutorial on using Many Eyes as part of his series called "NorthStar Nerd Tutorials."

"Many Eyes is unusual, because it takes advantage of the collective intelligence of a group to get more out of a data set," he said. For the tutorial, Mr. Hoeg exported enrollment data for graduate engineering students to the site, then used one of the tools there to display the information in various ways.

"I wanted people to understand that you can take the same data and have it tell lots of different stories," he said.

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