5: Visualizations and Accountability
Because visualization is also about transparency, about letting other people explore your source data, there is another important attribute of interactive visualizations: helping people find the “state” of a visualization that highlights the insight you want to share. Where is the center point of the display? How far is it zoomed in? Is the data sorted, filtered or focused on a particular item? This ability to “track back” makes it possible not only for you to highlight the pertinent information – the smoking gun or the needle in the haystack – but it also allows other users to potentially do the same. Did somebody using your visualization spot something interesting? Then let them save that state of the visualization and share it with others.
And beyond the visualization itself, there is a growing trend toward exposing the underlying dataset for your users to download. Within the bounds of protecting information that might be truly proprietary or contractually limited, letting other people download your data and find their own ways to visualize it goes hand-in-hand with the open spirit of data visualization. One need look no further than the Guardian newspaper in the UK and their “data store,” where you can download any number of public and private data sets to visualize yourself, or the contest sponsored by New York public radio, where users entered the history of their moves around the United States, and where those same users could download the collected data of other users and take a shot at visualizing it. Just recently Google and Eyebeam launched the “Data Vis Challenge,” inviting users to create interactive visualizations showing how U.S. taxpayers’ money is spent by the government.
It can be argued that a community is developing around data visualization, one that brings together practitioners from across academia, the arts, journalism, and computer science. Embracing visualization can help academic scholars connect with a whole new spectrum of collaborators and domain experts around the visual exploration and communication of ideas. As Eric Rodenbeck, founding partner of the San Francisco-based interactive design firm Stamen, recently opined, data visualization isn’t just a tool, but
“something more like a medium, something that can be used to tell stories, and to do all of the things that a medium can do, to delight and inspire.”