In the contemporary media scenario always more information is produced, managed and shared through digital channels, with the consequent production of a huge quantity of data which end up piling up and stratifying in the enormous container which is the Net. To trace tracks, outlines allowing to enhance – in between art and science – trends, connections or configurations within this digital chaos, is today one of the main aims of Information Visualization, and that of Manuel Lima – interaction designer, architect and researcher – is one of the most authoritative voices in the present-day research scenario on this theme. Member of the Royal Society of Arts, he was named by Creativity Magazine “among the 50 most influential and creative minds of 2009”.

He now is a User Experience Senior Designer at Microsoft Bing. Since a few years now, the name of Lima has been acquiring always more fame in the data-art and new media art environments, thanks to the fact that he is the founder of VisualComplexity.com, a reference container-website as far as complex data visualization is concerned. One of the aims of the project, developed during the second year of the MFA program at Parson School of Design in New York, is to offer a tool for critical analysis of different visualization methods in different disciplinary fields and research areas such as social networks, biology, economy, human sciences etc… A project which throughout the years has imposed itself as state of the art on the topic.

Its main characteristic is to explore with an analytical approach different methods of visualization, comparing different disciplines and giving an evolutionary prospective in terms of techniques and aesthetics. “Some projects are static, like graphics, diagrams, conceptual maps and network visualizations, others are highly interactive, complex algorithms, others are simply hand drawn or created through drawing softwares”, but just like Lima himself claims, all the projects have a characteristic in common: “The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts”.

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On this colossal project Manuel Lima recently based an interesting book entitled “Visual Complexity – Mapping Patterns of Information” (http://www.visualcomplexity.com/vc/book/), in which he preserves the usual comparative point of view, starting from the experiences of the website to stretch them in a both diachronic and synchronical point of view. The attempt of pointing out through this publication gives us the cue to analyse his work and thoughts from that analytical point of view he owns.

Pasquale Napolitano: After years of study, testing and implementing Information Visualizazion, and all its branches, it still seems not to have a definite scientific status, such that Lev Manovich titled  one of his latest articles published “What is Visualization?”. Can you tell us what is your point of view on this?

Manuel Lima: In the last 25 years the term “visualization” has become immensely popular, being fragmented in a profusion of subfields, carrying a diversity of specialized labels such as Information Visualization, Data Visualization, Scientific Visualization, Software Visualization, Geographic Visualization, Knowledge Visualization, Flow Visualization, and even Music Visualization. Many of these areas emerged in the midst of existing parallel areas like Information Design, Information Graphics, and Visual Communication. The distinction between them is occasionally thin, and in some cases almost inexistent. This rich plethora of labels is certainly indicative of the outburst of a new practice, but one that is still struggling to define itself.

Although many definitions exist, I’m still inclined to one of the most popular ones set forth by Stuart, Mackinlay, and Shneiderman in their landmark book “Readings in Information visualization: Using Vision to Think”, as the “use of computer-supported, interactive, visual representations of abstract data to amplify cognition”. It’s in essence a computer-driven transformation of abstract data (distinct from physical data – the earth, molecules, cells, human body, etc) into an interactive visual depiction aiming at insight – which in turn translates into “discovery, decision-making, and explanation”.

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Pasquale Napolitano: Nowadays most of the web-based relationships are based on interactions and communicative exchanges supported by text, pictures and other audiovisual material which end up layering to form a big database. The analysis of those data can help in the understanding of the dynamics and interactions of the online social world. Given new online social environments where threaded conversation is not the focal point of interaction how can Information Visualization aid social legibility?

Manuel Lima: Social sciences is just one of many areas where visualization is playing a major role in deciphering various behaviors and patterns. It is not a fortunate coincidence that the recent outburst of information visualization followed the same dramatic rise of the newest boom of online social networks. There are different reasons that explain this parallel progress:

Complex Social Groups: Many online communities nowadays reach striking numbers over many millions of users, turning into incredible research laboratories for social sciences. It’s widely said that if Facebook were a country, with more than 360 million users, it would make it the world’s third most populous nation, just behind China and India. This naturally creates a challenge. The level of complexity of many online social services like Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter has been pushing information visualization forward as it tries to come up with different solutions to visualize and analyze these vastly convoluted structures.

Shared Content: Members of these online communities are not only intricately intertwined; many are also engaged in collaborative actions in the creation and exchange of content, appropriately denominated by user-generated content. By doing so, many interesting patterns naturally come to light from these shared experiences. As we look into the information exchange through a visualization lens, various insights start emerging; from understanding how humans categorize information, through the analysis of social bookmarking services li

Tools: Besides their social nature, many online services provide a profusion of tools allowing you to track and map every daily activity imaginable. From tracing how many miles you run, charting the Geo-coordinates of your photos, or even plotting your sexual activities, many new tools keep pushing the boundaries for alternative self-tracking methods, able to visualize the most mundane personal behavior. This rising phenomenon will continue to push demand for innovative representational methodologies, which in turn will promote the advancement of information visualization.

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Pasquale Napolitano: As noted by several theorists, such as Castells and Nyiro, new communication technologies, with their speed and asynchrony, are producing an annihilation of space and the compression of time. The traditional space/time coordinates do not seem to find a place in the new forms of data representation, they seem to be replaced by new concepts such as “flow” or “evolution”. Do you think that this axis shift in the forms of representation is also affecting the real sense of time and place?

Manuel Lima: We tend to look for patterns everywhere. This capability is embedded in our perceptual mechanism and has saved our ancestors in critical events over millennia, from identifying a moving object in a grassland or a threatening face in a crowd. But we also look for patterns in data, information, facts, and stories as a central method for assimilating knowledge. The way many of these maps and alphabets are displayed can certainly influence our perception of reality, so it’s very likely that as representation metaphors shift so will our sense of time and place.

Pasquale Napolitano: As we can see giving a look at the projects collected on Visualcomplexity.com more and more visualizations, based on data that share the same genetic blueprint, share some traits, such as the use of the same geometric shapes (arc, circle, etc.) or the same spatial distributions. Do you think we can talk of a  kind of standardization, are we facing the born of a common grammar in the visualization of complex data?

Manuel Lima: Yes, absolutely. Almost as staggering as the assortment of portrayed subjects is the variety of employed visual techniques. Frequently generated by computer algorithms and enhanced by interactive features, most projects showcase a broad palette of visual elements and variations that consider color, text, imagery, size, shape, contrast, transparency, position, orientation, layout, and configuration. Despite this rich graphical diversity, many projects tend to follow noticeable trends and common principles, which in turn result in a type of emergent taxonomy.

This embryonic and evolving taxonomy provides a portrait of the current state of the practice and reveals the initial building blocks shaping a new visual language. This alphabet is not entirely new in the sense that many of its letters are recurrent visual metaphors used for centuries. But some are combining and recombining old metaphors in new original ways. This emergent grammar of network visualization will be featured in a dedicated chapter in my forthcoming book.

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Pasquale Napolitano: Often, some projects are realized with the aim of reducing the complexity, but , actually, they present data in a confused and illegible way nevertheless they are still attractive due to the presence of a high aesthetic quotient, like in Ebb and Flow of Movies published by Byron Lee and Amanda Cox on the “New York Times”. What do you think about the boundary, If in your opinion it exists, between data-art and data-visualization?

Manuel Lima: There’s certainly a boundary, but some see it more visibly than others. As I stated in my visualization manifesto in 2009, “Information Visualization and Information Art” can and should coexist, by learning from each other and cross-pollinating ideas, methods and techniques. In fact, this separation is beneficial for both areas, since it frees them from inadequate concerns and aspirations. Information Art can really push the creative limits of data and in the process generate new techniques and algorithms, but also spark public discourse – one of the great qualities of Art.

On the other hand, Information Visualization can mature as an analytical tool, providing a reliable and critical source of insight to many future challenges we are still to face. We have observed a similar symbiotic process between Art and Cartography for many centuries. Several authors have written on this subject and David Woodward, in his “Art & Cartography“, published in 1987, describes in detail how numerous artists were influenced by cartography, and how maps themselves were hung up on the walls as pieces of art. Nevertheless, both fields have always kept their independent paths and individual aspirations.

But it’s also important to highlight that this divide does not translate into an aesthetic dissection – neither art is the only portrayer of beauty nor should we think of information visualization as a purely pragmatic domain, entirely destitute of elegance and appeal. As David Staley stated in his “Computers, Visualization, and History” (2002): “Above all else, a visualization is beautiful when it is useful. A visualization is beautiful when it elegantly and appropriately makes the viewer think about the information organized in the visual display.

A visualization is beautiful when it allows the viewer to gain insight and understanding into the information, especially when that information was not appreciated in some other form, such as written prose. A visualization is beautiful when the information is thoughtfully arranged in such a way that patterns and structures are revealed.”

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Pasquale Napolitano: Recently the Cultural Studies and the Humanities are increasingly contaminated by the use of digital technologies. What do you think is the future and the role that the Information Visualization can play under the Digital Humanities big tent?.

Manuel Lima: It will be massive. You can have a glimpse of this major influence in the work being developed by Lev Manovich and his group in the domain of “Cultural Analytics” at the Software Studies Initiative of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). In an exhibition entitled Mapping Time (October 5 – December 12, 2010), Manovich and his team showcased a variety of projects dealing with the analysis and visualization of large cultural data sets. This exhibit delivered a riveting view on the role of visualization as a tool for cultural analysis, a tool for discovery and understanding in the whopping sea of data. It showed how visualization can continuously retell familiar stories, always adopting a new unseen perspective.

It explored a wide view of our culture across different time scales, where the whole predominates over the individual part. It exposed culture’s internal data points, tying them together in various patchworks with unconventional threads of insight. And while many of these patchworks provided alternative points of view into familiar territories, they also created a new cultural object, able to decode the inherent complexity of our contemporary society.

Pasquale Napolitano: Some editorial publications such as the “BBC” and the “NYT”, are showing strong interest in data visualization. Did you get an idea about the so-called “date-journalism “?

Manuel Lima: Mainstream media has been a central driving force for the latest outburst of interest for information visualization. Newspapers like The New York Times, magazines like “Wired”, and TV channels like “CNN” and “BBC”, have embraced an assortment of new methods for displaying information, contributing for a conscientious awareness for the discipline.

It is through many of these original initiatives that elements of the general public grasp the extended reach of the field, far beyond the familiar pie charts or bar charts.During the media coverage of the 2008 US presidential elections users were bombarded, and enthralled, with many of these novel approaches, from CNN’s telepresence [articles.cnn.com/2008-04-16/tech/db.telepresence_1_telepresence-videoconferencing-productivity?_s=PM:TECH] and interaction with large displays, to the copious number of interactive graphics generated by The New York Times.

Many journalists are continuously looking for enhanced ways of exploring and filtering the plentiful quantity of data at their disposal, contributing decisively to the development of the information visualization. As people become aware and increasingly interested in many of these unconventional views, so will the demand for richer methods of representation increase.

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Pasquale Napolitano: Do you think that Information Visualization will be the interface for the future web?

Manuel Lima: Visualization will always be an important element in any communication environment. The interface of the future web? That’s probably a far-fetched prospect that doesn’t even consider the truly diverse nature of the web

Pasquale Napolitano: Thank you for the thoughtful answers. To wrap up, please tell us about something you’re currently working on or about something you’re excited to start.

Manuel Lima: I’m currently immersed in my full-time role at Microsoft Bing, and quite excited to start my second book, even though it’s still too early to talk about it.


http://www.visualcomplexity.com/vc/

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