Visualization at the Crossroads

Michelle Borkin is astute in recognizing the manner in which information visualization can collapse the distinction between disciplines. Borkin notes that reading visual representations of star formation and human disease are not unlike exercises as MRI and telescope data are similar in terms of "format, size and noise." Similar overlaps occur in representing other fields and visualization is not necessarily tied to the standard operating procedure associated with a specific domain. To the visualization jockey, a network diagram is a network diagram - at least at a schematic level. If the focus is connectivity amongst users of a social web platform or the labyrinthine management structure of a sprawling multinational, the approach could be identical. With this in mind I've curated a selection of projects that build bridges between fields. These will be spread out over two posts with the first being recent work and the second highlighting some information visualization classics, so without further ado...

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Ben Fry - On the Origin of Species: The Preservation of Favoured Traces, 2009: An elegant study of the evolution of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species over several editions. Drawing on work by Dr. John van Wyhe, the project codifies edition by edition revisions and additions and displays the changes to the text in an interactive animation. These types of exercises are ubiquitous within web culture (i.e. tracking Wikipedia edits) but rendering a canonical scientific treatise as a "process piece" provides a window into the development of Darwin's theories.

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Mitchell Whitelaw - The Visible Archive, 2009: Produced for National Archives of Australia, this research project explores multiple datasets of this institutions holdings to produce maps of the collection. A response to the opacity of the traditional text-based interfaces for accessing archives, The Visible Archive proposes a number of alternative views of the holdings that include tag clouds, histograms and interactive sketches that highlight the relationships between various sub-collections. This methodology draws from statistics and software art and deploys this thinking in an information science context.

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Marco Quaggiotto - Knowledge Cartography, 2008

: This research provides numerous interfaces that foreground pedagogy and academic influence. To an outsider, the connections between scholars, departments and institutions can take years to decipher and this project uses network theory and geographic thinking to visualize these relationships. Stepping away from the rigidity of citation tracking, Knowledge Cartography proposes fluid frameworks for understanding complex relationships. See also City Murmur, an ambitious qualitative urban mapping project in which Quaggiotto is involved.

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Jer Thorp - NYTimes: 365/360 - 2008, 2008: Taking advantage of an Article Search API, the image on the left provides a concise map of the organizations and personalities that were mentioned in The New York Times in 2008. This strategy was used to distill a decade and a half of coverage down to a series of yearly gestalts that track trending influencers and (implicitly) reveal political and cultural shifts. Considered in this light the newspaper becomes a tool for the retroactive polling of public interest and the flurry of the news cycle is silenced in favor of a more expansive view of journalism.

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Fernanda Viégas & Martin Wattenberg - Fleshmap, 2008: A self-described "inquiry into human desire", the Fleshmap employs a number of bottom-up approaches to catalog public perceptions of the body and erogenous zones. Pictured above is a detail of a genre by genre analysis of how the body figures into various music styles as evidenced by lyrics. Is this work cultural studies or statistics? There is most certainly a light-hearted embellishment of the graphic treatments of the various results and the project was obviously intended to be accessible and provocative.

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