There were a couple of sessions at CIFOO which related two areas that I believe are very important. The first was a session on GapMinder/Trendalyzer - the software that Hans Rosling uses to give illustrate and motivate his wonderful presentations. The second was a session on data visualization.
GapMinder is the birthplace of Trendalyzer, a piece of software that Google acquired recently. GapMinder has three great assets: a data collection (publicly available statistics describing economic, environmental and other national and cultural measures), some software (which is basically a scatter graph with a temporal aspect - elegant, but quite simple) and a personality (Hans Rosling).
In the session on data visualization, I brought up a number of issues which I believe get at a central question: how do we go beyond the list as the only interface with the huge wealth of information that can be found on line. These included:
- The user is lazy - users will discover the simplest path of least commitment.
- Value of the web cannot be expressed as a list.
- A user's investment in an interaction is related to the expected quality and value of results (thus, if you have low expectations, you will only suffer close to immediate response times, but if you have high expectations you will be prepared to wait longer for a response).
So what relates these two sessions? I believe that the Trendalyzer software is a great example of the type of step we need to make to better educate people about the power of visualization and the power of data types other than lists of documents. It is a single idea, a single way to look at things and such focus is a powerful way to keep the attention of the user and remove possible distractions and complexity.
Ola Rosling, who presented the project, had something of a tough time answering questions about the direction and plans for the system, however. Will corporations be able to upload their data and visualize it? Is the system intended purely for (high school) educational purposes? I assume that there is actually a well thought out plan for the system, but the Googlification of the project may make these objectives less than transparent at this time.
One clear answer that Ola gave which, I'm afraid, indicates a real lost opportunity, is that Trendalyzer will not involve any community aspect. The system does allow for the sharing of links that reconstitute a specific state of the interface, but there won't be any Many Eyes style community. There are a number of reasons why I believe this to be a mistake:
- Community will help to build attention and thus lead to increased visibility and educational opportunities.
- Community will help refine existing data (those pesky 'official' stats may be less than true) and identify new sources of data.
- Community will help develop the tool.
GapMinder and Trendalyzer have always been very cool things - I hope that somewhere there is a strong vision guiding them forward to even more ambitious heights leveraging their new home.
(BTW, I am aware that the GapMinder organization is separate from Google - it is just the software that was acquired).