Building Bridges from Academia to Business and Practice

Hey all – we have developed a great relationship with John Stasko, Associate Chair of the School of Interactive Computing program at Georgia Tech and the General Chair of the upcoming IEEE VIS 2013 conference. As we’ve talked with John, our conversations seem to always come around to the need for a tighter connection between academia and industry. As a result, we thought it’d be great to introduce John to our tribe through a guest post. Below are just some of the ways John is working to bring academia and industry together. Enjoy! 

Hello - I’m a professor at Georgia Tech and I’ve been working in the data visualization research area for over 20 years. My friends at Juice asked me to write a short guest blog entry providing perspectives from the academic data visualization community and exploring ways to foster more industry-academia collaboration. I’ve found that we don’t work together often enough, which is too bad because each side has a lot to offer to the other.

I personally have benefited from business collaborations in many ways. Since data visualization research is so problem-driven, industrial interaction provides an excellent way to learn about current problems and data challenges. In my graduate course on information visualization student teams design and implement semester-long data visualization projects. I encourage the teams to seek out real clients with data who want to understand it better. Some of the best projects over the years have resulted from topics suggested by colleagues working in industry. Additionally, I often employ guest lecturers such as the guys at Juice to come and speak with my students and provide their own insights about creating visualization solutions for clients.

I hope that in some ways my class is benefiting industry as well and helping to train the next generation of data visualization practitioners. Students learn about all the different visualization techniques and their particular strengths and limitations. They also get hands-on practice both designing visualizations for a variety of data sets and using current “best practice” tools and systems. The course has become a key piece of the Master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction here at GT.

Another opportunity for interaction is academic research forums such as conferences and workshops. Coming up this October in Atlanta is IEEE VIS, the premier academic meeting for data visualization research. VIS consists of three conferences: Information Visualization (InfoVis), Visual Analytics Science & Technology (VAST), and Scientific Visualization (SciVis). Last fall, the meeting garnered over 1000 attendees for the first time.  VIS is an excellent forum to learn about the state of the art in data visualization research, see the latest systems from commercial vendors, and just rub elbows with like-minded friends and colleagues.  Recent papers at VIS presented tools such as Many Eyes and D3, introduced techniques such as Wordles and edge bundling, or just pondered topics such as storytelling and evaluation.  And the meeting has much more than just research papers – It also includes numerous workshops, tutorials, panels, and posters. This year for the first time we have added an “Industrial and Government Experiences Track”. This program is designed to highlight real world experiences designing, building, deploying and evaluating data visualizations. The presentation mode for this track will be posters on display throughout the meeting with multiple focused interaction sessions. Each submission should include a 2-page abstract about the project and a draft of the poster. They are due on June 27th.  More details about the track can be found on the meeting home page.

I hope to see many of you at VIS in October here in Atlanta!

Survey Results: Are the Viz-Pundits Really Helping?

A few weeks ago Juice asked our readers to give us a few insights into whether or not we and other info-viz sites are actually helping them and their organizations be more effective at communicating information.

Well, the time has come to take a look at the results (oooh - pins and needles). The survey was way more popular than we expected, receiving well over 500 responses.

We had a few questions that were of the form "select the answer that best describes you" but, for the most part, we focussed on text based answers so that we could try to avoid directing the answers and could demonstrate some non-traditional visualization styles to explore results. As a side note, the open ended answers to the text based questions were truly intriguing to read - hopefully the presentation of the results below will give you a small insight to what we learned.

So, here are the results.

Survey Results

The first section of questions dealt with getting some context about our readers. Since the questions were multiple choice, we’re showing the results in traditional bar chart format.

Question 1

In terms of size, which of the following is your company most like?

  • A one man band
  • The Dirty Dozen
  • The University of Rhode Island
  • Microsoft
Q1: Company Size
Question 2

In terms of information presentation expertise, who do you see yourself as?

  • The Excel Chart Wizard incarnate (I’m happy with the quickest route)
  • Harold and the Purple Crayon (I’m pretty good, but not too finicky)
  • A Tufte clone (every chart is carefully and lovingly crafted with intention)
Q2: Expertise
Question 3

If your company were stuck on Gilligan’s Island, would you be able to use information presentation to get rescued?

  • No, Gilligan keeps using our Tufte books to prop up the break room table.
  • Maybe. The Skipper rigged up this island beacon system using coconuts, vines, and tiki torches.
  • You betcha! The Professor could build a huge island sized information display that could be seen, understood, and acted upon by the astronauts on the International Space Station.
Q3: Escape from Gilligan’s Island
Question 4

What two information sources do you most frequently use for information presentation tips, trends, and best practices?

  • BI Vendor’s website (e.g., Business Objects, Tableau, Cognos, etc.)
  • The Dashboard Spy
  • Dashboards by Example
  • FlowingData
  • Infographic News
  • Information Aesthetics
  • Jorge Camoes’ Charts
  • Juice Analytics
  • Junk Charts
  • Tufte’s web Site
  • Visual Business Intelligence (Stephen Few’s site)
  • VizThink
  • Other
Q4: Popular Sites

However, What we really want to know is what sites are most closely related. So we tried looking at them with a phrase net from ManyEyes:

Q4: Phrasenet

( You can experiment with it yourself here. )

This is a great way to demonstrate how sites are "connected". We see a very strong relationship between Juice and the other non-Juice sites, but not a strong relationship between the non-Juice sites, themselves. In retrospect, the question would have been more effective had we asked respondents for their "top three or four" sites (approximately: total number of options ÷ 3).

The next group of questions were crafted to help us understand the problems our users and their organizations are encountering when it comes to presenting information to stakeholders and users. For most of these questions we broke the number one rule in surveys: stay away from text based answers.

Question 5

Using one word for each, list three things that you most frequently find useful from these sources?

Q5: Tag Cloud

( You can experiment with it yourself here. )

This was one of the most useful result sets and clearly shows that people like examples and new ideas for visualizations, followed by tips on how to get it done. (I’m hoping this post meets all of those criteria to some level.)

Question 6

Within your organization, would you say the understanding of information visualization best practices is:

  • Staying the same
  • Improving
Q6: Improving?
Question 7

What one word describes the biggest barrier to improved information presentation at your company?

I selected a Wordle (as opposed to a tag cloud) for questions 7 and 8 because I wanted to see the results in a way that would give me the general feeling of the barriers and benefits - I wanted the answers to spur some sort of emotive response. I think a Wordle does this better than a tag cloud.

Q7: Barriers

( You can experiment with it yourself here. )

Question 8

What one word describes the biggest boon to improved information presentation at your company?

Q8: Benefits

( You can experiment with it yourself here. )

While the "barriers" answers were interesting, there are some real nuggets hidden in these "benefits" results.

Question 9

Finish this sentence: "My company would be oh so much better at information presentation if we just had..."

What we really want to know is what are the patterns and relationships between words. Having said that, the most common words are still interesting to see:

Q9: What would be better?

( You can experiment with it yourself here. )

But, we are really interested in the word patterns. So, we used the Juice search patterns tools Concentrate to identify patterns. The top patterns were



more X


more time X


better X


X data


X time


more time to X


time X


a better X


X data.


X more time


people X


more people X


more resources X


the right X


more people who X


people who X


time to X


more time and X


Now, if we look at how the "non-common" words relate visually, here’s what we get:

Q9: Phrasenet

( You can experiment with it yourself here. )

Question 10

Finish this sentence: "If I were to advise someone on how to best improve your capability to create really useful information presentation solutions, I’d say don’t forget..."

Again, it’s interesting to see the most commonly used words:

Q10: How to improve

( You can experiment with it yourself here. )

But the most value again comes from looking at the phrase net:

Q10: Phrasenet

( You can experiment with it yourself here. )

Question 11

Finally, we’re going to post results on our blog for free download. However, if you want us to notify you when the report is ready, please provide your email address below.(And because we have a large international following, please add your country as well, if you don’t mind. Why? ’cuz we’re just curious. Thanks!)

So, we’re going to show only the countries here, no email addresses (whew!). Let’s start with looking at the standard distribution:

Q11: Respondent Countries

And here’s the geographic representation from Many Eyes:

Q11: Many Eyes Map

( You can experiment with it yourself here. )

But, having looked at that, I thought it might be a little more interesting to look at the country locations like this (text sized based on number of participants):

Q11: Country Cloud

Additional Insights

And that was all of the questions that were in the survey. However, I thought some of the multiple choice "context" question required just a bit more analysis; there were some questions I still had that weren’t yet answered. So, I loaded the data into Tableau’s Public version of their application to give a little more analysis flexibility. Here is the dashboard I created to better understand expertise:

Characteristics of expertise
Characteristics of expertise

Powered by Tableau

What this shows is that organizations that are more capable of responding to tough information presentation challenges have a substantially higher ration of "Tufte Clones".

And this made me wonder how skills basis might be impacting different sizes of companies:

What companies are improving?
What companies are improving?

Powered by Tableau

A pretty nice linear correlation between company size and improvement trends, don’t you think?

You made it to the end!

This post turned out to be much longer than I wanted it to be, but hopefully you found it interesting and learned a few things about your fellow readers and how to display different kinds of survey responses. If you have other insights you think you see, please comment below! Thanks for participating!

Analytics Roundup: Expensive cup of Joe-l

On the Fahrenheit scale, do 0 and 100 have any special meaning
The story of a mixed up metric.

At Last, a $20,000 Cup of Coffee - New York Times
Monstrous $20k coffee brewing system for fanatics, err, I mean, purists.

Five whys - Joel on Software
Incredible blog on system uptime, SLAs, rdiculousness of "Six 9’s", black swans, and how superbly FogCreek Software handles customer service issues.

Browser History Timeline
Chronicle of the lives of six popular Web browsers.

Microsoft says: “BI is Really Hard to Use”

We don’t tend to agree with Microsoft when it comes to data analysis and presentations. In fact, we’ve even been critical of them for misrepresenting data, excessive visual “flair”, missed opportunities to improve Excel, forgetting their power users, subpar presentation tools, and wasteful slide masters.

With all these past differences, I was a little surprised to find that we do share some common ground. Check out the comments (from an article in Internet News) by Peter Klein, CFO for Microsoft’s Business Division in describing the world of business intelligence:

“I’ve talked to a lot of customers about business intelligence and the one thing that they tell me is it’s really hard to use,” said Peter Klein, during at the Credit Suisse conference.

“‘I’m not getting the value out of the investment that I made,’” Klein said customers had complained. “‘I have invested a lot in my back-end systems, and today 10 percent or less of my employees actually touch it, or get access to the data. I’ve got six different BI solutions across multiple different departments, none of which talk to each other. And they’re hard to use, so I’ve got to send people to training for two weeks to learn how to use it.

Finally, we are speaking the same language. Now, I’m curious to see what they are going to do about it.

Do you have Insurgent Data?

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who put things into two categories and those who don’t. Maybe this isn’t the best representation of the complexities of the human race, but it does give me a cheap lead-in to compare two types of problem solutions: “high tech,” focused on tools, and “high touch,” focused on interpersonal communications.

I was reminded of these two approaches by a recent interesting article in Wired that expresses an opinion about why America’s performance in Iraq has been disappointing. The basic premise of this article is that America has entered into this engagement in a “technology networked" fashion, drowning it in technology; the more, the better.

The article suggests that the US forces would make more progress if they were to spend more time on a “socially networked" approach. For instance, instead of remote controlling a drone from 100 miles away, spend more time drinking chai with local leaders. Not the absence of technology, but the incorporation of technology into a socially based environment.

“If I know where the enemy is, I can kill it. My problem is I can’t connect with the local population.” This was a quote from one division commander. Change a couple of words and you end up with a statement that many of us would find all too familiar:

“If I know where the inefficiency is, I can fix it. My problem is I can’t connect with my data.”

Aren’t we witnessing this in spades right now in the BI space? There’s no lack of number of tools and number of features in these tools. The challenge is figuring out who the real insurgents are and how you deal with them. If you’ve been reading the Juice blog for very long, you have a pretty good feeling for how we approach what we believe is a social problem (high touch) and not a technical one (high tech).

The good news is that the US forces are changing their approach to socialize more with the Iraqi people—hopefully leading to a better Iraq. Is there good news for the BI space? We’d like to hear from you on how you’re making sure you focus enough on the social “high touch" aspects of our space. What’s your insurgent data? How can you get to know it better?

Analytics Roundup: TIps for showing, sharing, communicating

Developer’s Guide - Google Chart API - Google Code
Beautiful stuff, particularly the Venn diagram.

Align Journal - BI Worst Practices
We often see articles on BI "Best Practices" here is an article telling us what NOT to do.

flot - Google Code
Attractive Javascript plotting for jQuery.

ongoing · On Communication
Interesting blog post about how different forms of communication rank for immediacy, lifespan, and audience reached.

The Excel Magician: 70+ Excel Tips and Shortcuts to help you make Excel Magic : Codswallop

Source for presentation ideas.

Google Presentations and the Right Tool for the Job

Last week, Google released Presentations to fill out their portfolio of online, collaborative document types (they already offer text documents and spreadsheets). The Google folks were kind enough to include us in a round of beta testing a few weeks back, giving us a chance to preview this application, find bugs, and offer feedback.

If you give Google Presentations a try, you may be struck by its limitations. It doesn’t offer much flexibility in creating presentations, especially when compared to Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote. The best you can do is create simple text slides on a few predefined templates. On the other hand, it offers unique capabilities you don’t get with desktop applications. In particular, we were impressed with how easy it was to share a presentation live online.

I have started to wonder whether calling Google Presentations a "web-based competitor to PowerPoint" or "a PowerPoint clone" was simplistic and misguided. Lumping together software tools is a natural reaction to long lists of features and techno-terminology. Software vendors don’t make it any easier to distinguish the differences when they attempt to convince us that their solution is the complete, do-everything tool to satisfy all your [presentation/data analysis/communication/networking] needs.

So, we assume our software tools fall into neat buckets. We assume the tool we are using today do everything we need "well enough." And we assume any new tool is a direct competitor to what we use. As a result, we are severely limited in what we can achieve.

For a long time, I was a fan and a heavy user of PowerPoint. It did what I needed. Perhaps I told myself that what it did was all I needed. A while ago, I had to break off this exclusive relationship.

Now, I find myself using a bunch of different tools to communicate information. On the one hand, this has made my life more complicated. There are new applications to learn and the hassle of moving documents around. But in other ways, it’s easier. I use tools designed for the task at hand. And I have opened up a whole new realm of what is possible in terms of organization, polish, and audience engagement.

The table below shows the activities involved in business presentations. For each activity, I have a rough assessment of how well PowerPoint, Keynote, and Google Presentation perform. I also list the current Juice toolset.

Analytics Roundup: Chicken presentation and so much more

Programming Collective Intelligence
Pulling information from community contributed data.

Videos that can change your organization
Top ten business videos on YouTube.

The Encyclopedia of Business Cliches

UC Berkeley CS160 User Interfaces Fall 06
Course readings and student notes.

Language Log: Chicken: the PowerPoint Presentation
The presentation you dare not give.

Prometheus Meets the Enterprise Management System
I laughed, I cried, I laughed again.

Diagrams: Tools and Tutorials

Data Visualization: Modern Approaches
A grab bag of ideas.

fontblog : Introducing Ambiguity
A typographic symbol to indicate ambiguity, compare to the typographic mark lol which indicates stupidity.

Whimsley: The Netflix Prize: 300 Days Later

Process Trends Website
Good excel charting and visualization tips.

BusinessWeek: Who Participates And What People Are Doing Online
A simple and fairly effective use of square pies.

What is Worse Than a “Super Mugging”?

I don’t know what you call it, but I know it when I see it. A couple months back I wrote about IBM’s sweet $80 million contract to develop ARIS (Achievement Reporting and Innovation System) for the New York City public schools. At the time I used some harsh words to describe this fleecing: swindle...preying on clients’ lack of expertise...Dr. Evil...wasted time and effort.

News comes to me from Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of Class Size Matters, that the $80 million price tag is, well, a starting point. She pointed me to a recent article that describes the creeping costs:

The education department’s new $80 million student-tracking computer system just got more expensive - and some parents are questioning whether that’s the best use of the money.

To ensure that children’s test scores and other private data don’t get into the wrong hands, the city began accepting bids this week from companies that specialize in safeguarding information, which experts say could add several million dollars to the system’s price.

"What’s not lost on parents of kids in overcrowded schools is that with the money being spent on this, we could build and staff several more schools," said Tim Johnson, president of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council.

Parents are also wondering whether the system’s mounting cost is worth it - and why education officials didn’t anticipate the extra cost sooner. —New York Daily News

It does seem odd that a $80 million system wouldn’t come pretty well stocked with security, particularly from a blue-chip vendor like IBM. On top of that, Leonie hints at other costs that aren’t being directly counted toward the implementation of this system:

This initiative has mushroomed into a huge expense that threatens to overwhelm the entire school system, with all the SAFS, data inquiry teams, tests, and even the community district superintendents gobbled up to interpret and try to "coach" schools in the use of the massive data that will be spewed out. The DOE wants to charge much of this to the "contracts for excellence" and our CFE dividend, though it’s a real stretch to see if any of this falls under the specific programs outlined by the state.

Good luck to Leonie, Patrick Sullivan and the others who are stepping up to question this white elephant project.

Analytics Roundup: Visualization goodies

The Problem With Presentations
Don’t let presentation software keep you from getting your story across,

Webfoot’s Mapeteria: Map Colouring
Want to make a choropleth thematic map (i.e. coloured based on your data) for Canadian provinces, U.S. states, or French départements?

The Econ 101 Management Method - Joel on Software
Instead of having smart people figure out how to train their frontline customer service workers to serve customers well and profitably, they make up metrics that sound good and let the low wage, high-turnover customer service people come up with their own.

The rise and fall of IT | Perspectives | CNET
Scrap IT? A well-reasoned argument for scrapping the term "IT."

Gallery of Data Visualization

Summize - Summarized product reviews
A nice visualization for showing rankings.

The Extreme Presentation(tm) Blog: Choosing a good chart