Ben Shneiderman | Visualize data

GCN Interview

Ben Shneiderman

ARE COMPUTERS making everyone more visual? Perhaps, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, said Ben Shneiderman, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland.

Shneiderman has long been interested in the relationship between people and computers.

He was founding director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland, which designs, implements and evaluates new interface technologies.

He is the author of more than 200 technical papers and several books, including 'Leonardo's Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies,' which won the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' 2003 award for distinguished literary contribution.



GCN: WHAT IS INFORMATION VISUALIZATION, AND WHY DO YOU HAVE SUCH AN EVANGELICAL VIEW OF IT?

SHNEIDERMAN:
The early computer technologies were based on punch cards and lines of text. So the command lines, database query languages and output were straight textual rows and columns of data'.[It's]very useful for many, many applications.

However, when you've got thousands of rows of information, and I ask you to find the patterns, the clusters, the gaps, the outliers of relationships, it's extremely difficult to do. A natural response has been to write statistical software tools that will compute correlation coefficients or other mathematical functions.

And that works for those people who have a good understanding of statistics.

But the exciting possibility is the visual nature of the computer and of the Web. It's no surprise' that the compelling visual and animated Web sites are gaining the majority of user attention.

GCN: WHAT ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF THE EFFECTIVE USE OF INFORMATION VISUALIZATION?

SHNEIDERMAN:
The first place to look is the ManyEyes Web site [GCN.com/882]. Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viegas at IBM did this Web site where users can upload their own data. Users can save the 14 or so visualizations on the Web site and then produce lively discussions.

Another interesting use of information visualization is Smart Money's MarketMap [www.smartmoney.com/marketmap/].

Wattenberg also did this, and I was a consultant on it. There, you're looking at 600 stocks at one glance. On the bright-green days, when the stock market is up, it's a dramatic picture. The dark-red days, it's a sad picture.

On Feb. 27, when there was a sharp drop in the market, everything was red except for one green rectangle, which was the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co.

That day, they had bought the Pathmark chain of stores, so they went up. So it's wonderful for showing those kinds of things.

GCN: WHERE HAS THE GOVERNMENT MADE GOOD USE OF INFORMATION VISUALIZATION?

SHNEIDERMAN:
I think government agencies have made some nice efforts, particularly with maps. The Census Bureau's mapmaking tools are quite nice.

They'll paint you maps of the United States depending on the variables you want. And the National Cancer Institute also has some nice software that allows people to explore the relationships of different kinds of cancer and different variables, with age groups, gender and so on. There are some courageous and innovative designers of government Web sites that have done very nice things.

GCN: WHAT ARE SOME WAYS THAT GOVERNMENT COULD USE INFORMATION VISUALIZATION BETTER? WHERE ARE SOME POCKETS OF THE GOVERNMENT THAT WOULD BE RIPE FOR THIS?

SHNEIDERMAN:
Issues such as housing prices ' [are they] going up and down in certain cities or states more than others? Visualization tools are especially good in showing you the change from one time period to another time period.

GCN: DO YOU THINK THE WEB IS CHANGING THE WAY WE THINK IN TERMS OF MAKING US ALL A LITTLE MORE VISUAL?

SHNEIDERMAN:
Sure. Just look at the amazing phenomena of YouTube or Flickr. Thirty years ago, there were probably only a hundred studios in the country that could make a film. Now every kid with a laptop can make a film. People are encouraged to think visually that way. Radiology is transformed by the increased quality of the imagery. Social networks are another important area. There are four categories of these things where you're seeing rapid change: temporal data, hierarchical data, network data and multidimensional data. The one that's still a great struggle that we're working on is socialnetwork visualization. That's still more of a research topic.

GCN: WHAT WOULD BE AN EXAMPLE OF SOCIAL-NETWORK VISUALIZATION?

SHNEIDERMAN:
We're working with the University of Maryland's START center, which is [the Homeland Security Department's] National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Reponses to Terror.

They are the keeper of the global terror database of 70,000 terrorist attacks over the last 28 years.

You then look at the terrorist organizations and who they are affiliated with, and you get to see this very rich pattern of who's connected with whom. And these social networks do provide important, revealing points about how people are connected.

GCN: YOU SAID YOU COULD USE INFORMATION VISUALIZATION TO FIGHT TERRORISM. HOW?

SHNEIDERMAN:
When there are disasters, emergencies or terror attacks, one of the important issues is dealing with information overload. If you have a thousand phone calls coming in, that's a real challenge to manage.

You have to find scalable approaches, and visual or graphical displays can give you a handle on what's happening. At the START center, we're working on a project that shows on a map where people are when they hit *9 on their cell phones, which sends a geolocated, time-stamped [Short Message Service] message to university security.

GCN: HOW COULD GOVERNMENT AGENCIES MAKE THEIR WEB SITES MORE FUN?

SHNEIDERMAN:
Fun is part of functionality. The first place we think about is the information architecture, what the goals are, and what the user requirements and needs are.

The important thing for government Web sites is the services they provide to citizens, residents, users. The first thing is to identify what you need to do and then provide that service in a rapid way that's effective and serves user needs. After that, there are ways to add fun, usually, and many government Web sites use color, photographs, graphic design and good writing to help organize the information and to help make it compelling. Of course, on modern systems, the expectation is that we have animations, sound and other interaction components.

For me, the key thing is to go beyond fun and give users control.

The motto for our research project that's supported by the National Science Foundation, the Digital Government Initiative, was 'Enabling users to find what they need and understand what they find.'

GCN: WHAT DO GOVERNMENT WEB SITES DO WELL?

SHNEIDERMAN:
They do a wonderful job of collecting data.

I'm impressed by their diligence in statistical analysis, dealing with missing data, dealing with uncertain data. There are many problems in the data spheres that government agencies deal with.

GCN: WHAT WOULD YOU OFFER AS THREE QUICK FIXES FOR GOVERNMENT SITES?

SHNEIDERMAN:
One, use compact visual design that puts a lot of information in a well-organized way on the screen. Broader, shallower menu trees, as we know, is a winning strategy with fewer levels and more items at each level.

Two, give users control over visual displays like bar charts, graphs and maps.

My third one would be to consider universal usability issues.

How do you design sites so that blind users can use them, too? And people who are getting the site on cell phones and slow modems and small screens ' make it work effectively for them.

GCN: DO YOU THINK WE'RE BECOMING TOO VISUAL AT THE EXPENSE OF OTHER WAYS OF LEARNING AND DOING THINGS?

SHNEIDERMAN:
From the days of Leonardo [da Vinci], when things were very visual, we've gone in the 20th century to a highly text-oriented view of the world. We're just moving the pendulum back a little. Visual is the way you understand the world when you're out in the forest or on the mountains. Text is the intrusion.

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