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The digital magazine of InfoVis.net

Is InfoVis useful?
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 199]

The 13th International Conference on Information Visualisation (IV09) held in July, 2009 in Barcelona brings some thoughts about the final goals of InfoVis and the distance between the research work and the needs of the user.
UPF1.jpg (243100 bytes)UPF2.jpg (267992 bytes)
Universitat Pompeu Fabra. The brand new campus of the 22@ district is located in a very active area devoted to innovation and new media in Barcelona City.
Source: Photographs made by the author.
Click on the image to enlarge it. 

 This past July the 13th International Conference on Information Visualisation (IV'09), was held in the premises of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, in Barcelona, this time with the participation of UPF and InfoVis.net in the local organisation.

We will not talk here about the technical presentations that were many and some of them very interesting. You can consult the book of abstracts for more information.

As local chair I had the opportunity to convey a brief speech to the audience whose leitmotiv I would like to share with you since it is not only part of my concerns regarding Information Visualisation but I would dare to say that it's increasingly a major worry for some (if not many) of the researchers in the field. It is the lack of knowledge about the usefulness (not to confuse with usability) of our developments.

In this and other conferences you find outstanding examples of good mastery of sophisticated graphics, visual metaphores, and programming skills. Nevertheless Information Visualisation (InfoVis) is not massively reaching the end user, not to say the consumer world. We provide appealing and impacting applications that nevertheless aren't finally used by a wide part of their potential customers.

Many powerful applications are difficult to use or even to understand by the layman which constitutes a major drawback for them. Here the paradigm should be "easy to understand, easy to use, zero instructions, no handbook". This goal doesn't seem easy to achieve right now.

In particular I found two speeches quite enlightening and controversial at the same time

Remo Burkhard who owns the Vasp Datatecture company and has been working in knowledge visualisation for the ETH in Zürich summarised his experience with the ETH Value Lab and related concerns with the sentence "Make it super simple, make it for the people, make it for relevant problems of the people".

Arno H.P. Reuser, founder and director of the the Dutch Open Source Intelligence Department within the Dutch Defence Intelligence & Security Service and now CEO of Reuser Information Services gave a vibrant and amusing keynote speech about improving retrieval performance for the user perspective. The most striking part of his humorous speech was the confrontation of the needs of the user, that doesn't know about technicalities and requires quick, up to date conclusions coming from huge amounts of information, with the work of the scientist that produces complex graphics that many times do not fulfill those needs.

Most probably the iPhone represents nowadays one epitome of this goal. Complex technologies make its use simple, only a button and a tactile screen. You can approach it without a manual and it's quite intuitive to use yet the range of applications is vast. I agree that it's not devoted to information visualisation and it doesn't tackle the problem of finding the information you need out of a huge amount of data but it's a good example of how to make the user's life easier.

Finally usability evaluations were more present in the speeches in which, on the other hand, many of the speakers still abuse of MS PowerPoint bullet points. This is quite unacceptable coming from an Information Visualization community especially if the speakers are young researches.

So it appears that InfoVis is slowly moving in the right direction but we still have long road ahead. If young researches working on InfoVis are not yet knowledgeable enough to convey their messages in a clear, visual way instead of using bullet points it means that we need to strongly improve the level of education on the InfoVis disciplines.

Links of this issue:

http://www.infovis.net/printRec.php?rec=eventos&lang=2#IV09   IV09 entry in Infovis.net's Events section
http://www.graphicslink.co.uk/IV09/IV09_Book_of_Abstracts.pdf   "Book of abstracts" of IV09 conference.
http://vizthink.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=260   Remo Burkhard profile in VizThink
http://www.reuser.biz/   Reuser's Information Services
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