Last night a couple of us made it out to the VizFarm, July's installment of the incredibly successful IxDA San Francisco monthly event. The format was interesting: 19 presenters, speaking for 5 minutes each on a single visualization or visualization-related project. The brevity of the presentations was reminiscent of Pecha Kucha and certainly served to keep things moving and provide for a serious diversity of material, even if I wished I could hear a bit about some of the projects. (Also, I should say fellow Cooperista Chris Noessel and myself were both presenters and we certainly found it easier to prepare for this than a longer format. This is a good way to encourage participation from a community.)

The visualizations described topics included genetic sequencing workflow, Grand Prix motorcycle racing results, air-traffic control, correlations between deforestation and carbon emissions, as well as between transit times and home prices, and of course, the slightly self-referential but always enjoyable topic of uncovering meaning in qualitative design research.

A recurring theme in many of the presentations was how visualizations can help to uncover answers to complicated questions like "Where are there opportunities to reduce the amount of time it takes to sequence a human genome?" or "Where should I be looking if I want to buy a home that costs under £500k and is within an hour commute to central London?" By structuring the data and display in the right way, we can start to rely on people's abilities to recognize visual patterns to see complex situations in new ways.

Photo: Many Eyes

Of course, readers of Tufte will be familiar with a lot of this — in an academic sense, at least. But there's a huge challenge in making these useful to those who are less familiar with infographic conventions. To address complex questions in a visualization, the creator must communicate the utility of the levers and dials to "readers" at a variety of levels, which require a certain degree of visual and quantitative literacy, and can (potentially) further burden the display/interface.

Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda B. Viégas have made an attempt at this with IBM's Many Eyes project, the goal of which is to "democratize visualization and to enable a new social kind of data analysis." (To avoid any confusion, I'll mention that Many Eyes was not part of the proceedings last night.)

What do you think? Does something like this stand to help citizens better understand the world they live in, without the slant and filter of news organizations? What can we do to provide these new ways of seeing things to audiences unaccustomed to reading data visualizations?