Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Personal Take on Infovis 2011

I haven't had time to go thru the papers I liked and didn't like yet, but I have been musing on some other aspects of Infovis that I thought I'd recap. To situate this, I usually go every other year to Infovis, and have been doing so since mid-2000's, I guess.

Who Went, Who Didn't; Design vs. "Science"

Partly due to irritable blog exchanges in the past couple years, and partly due to perceived relevance of papers and audience, many of the artistic practitioners of infovis did not come. Or, if they did, I didn't know they were there. By this I mean academic artistic sorts like Golan Levin and Casey Reas and Dan Shiffman, and the practitioners like Stamen, Moritz Stefaner, JanWillen Tulp, Jer Thorp, Wes Grubbs, Ben Fry and Fathom, David McCandless, etc. (Kim Rees from Periscopic did attend. I wish I'd gotten a chance to talk with her.)

Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viegas, who are successful straddlers of artistic, industrial, and academic infovis, didn't make it either. They weren't boycotting, it was due to work and personal reasons. (Google+ Ripples, a project of theirs, launched while we were sitting in paper sessions.) I mention them because a handful of years ago they tried to bridge the communities (with Golan) in starting an art track. I don't think the momentum has been entirely conserved. Certainly the papers didn't reflect great focus on emotional, artistic, or design processes. The one most focused on design as process was a very dry and obvious overview how to do "user-centered design for beginners" that caused an industrial colleague of mine to observe "the bar for acceptance seems very low here." (It's not, but that one did make me raise my eyebrows.)

Again, this said, Amanda Cox's brilliant capstone talk, which was largely about design process and decisions at the NYT, was a huge success. As was Jessica Hullman's talk on visual engagement methods (or "chart junk, the sequel," as someone noted--Jerome Cukier, possibly).

I know some members of the program committee are trying to figure out how to get more industrial attendance. CHI has been through this for years, and added various case study tracks, panels dedicated to industrial talks, alt.chi for less mainstream academic works, among other strategies. Infovis could use some of this, but attracting people who have successful careers already, and convincing them there is value in attending given the pricetag, needs some more thinking through. I see value for them in the algorithm side of many of the papers -- but that might not be worth the cost of attendance for them.

Maybe the drinking would? I know some of us talked about the artistic non-attendees over drinks, since they weren't there to participate. More on this below...

One more contingent: there were a lot of folks from the intelligence communities, DoD, the government in general. My perception is that this has increased. And I think they asked smarter questions this year; they certainly weren't shy about going to the mic.

Paper Experience Sure Differs, Depending on Your Perspective

During a bunch of papers, the demo or video had some astoundingly beautiful angle or process moment that just wasn't published "point" -- it was almost incidental. I'm thinking especially of the beautiful organic edge bundling videos from "Skeleton-Based Edge Bundling for Graph Visualization" by Ozan Ersoy et al. (see this page for some recap.). My comment to Jen Lowe was that Jer Thorp and the Processing crowd would have loved this, and with the algorithm detail in the paper, would be able to implement and tweak quite easily. I can't find their videos anywhere, though! (Note: Even the first questioner afterwards said "I could watch your videos forever," but it was kind of in an undertone, not her point either. Let's have more talks where creating beautiful effects is a part of the point, perhaps?)

Ersoy et al. Skeletonization

Mike Bostock's D3.js talk was fascinating to those of us who had read his slides from SVG beforehand, but hadn't heard his commentary on them; and if you knew the DataMarket protovis-vs-d3 history online. It was also nerve-wracking worrying about who would ask what afterwards given some of that historical controversy. Apparently not so for other attendees, I heard later! I find Mike's arguments convincing, although I have not tried to build anything sizable in D3 yet.

Jo Wood's et al.'s BallotMaps talk about name-order biases in voting districts was a wonderful "process" talk on using their HIVE system to visually test hypotheses. (For general info, see their org page.) I feel that the talk with demo of stages of visual exploration was important in making the story work, and the paper isn't as easy or fun to grok. Aidan Slingsby et al's talk on showing uncertainty in cluster results was similar (and surprisingly, the paper seems to differ quite a bit in the system design shown).


Program Committee: I'd like to see more videos in the proceedings!

Student Distractions: To Finish or Not?

As an ex-research type myself, I'm always interested in what grad students are going through now, what topics they and their advisors find valuable to study, and what my friends are facing as advisors. Stanford and Berkeley students seem to have a lot more distractions from start-ups given the "big data" and "data science" world we're in now. At the Stanford-sponsored party, I actually found myself recapping all the reasons to finish a Ph.D. to some poor guy who had no intention of quitting his. (Sorry, S, too many drink tickets.)

I don't necessarily use my own Ph.D. (except maybe socially at conference parties), but I have certainly concluded that spending years in a university surrounded by other smart people is not a bad thing. After all, the business world is usually not as smart, face it. And you will have many years to work a 9-7 job after school, so why rush out? The chance to sit in on other departments' classes, even when it's not a requirement, is a chance you don't usually get after graduation. Infovis, like HCI, is (or should be) interdisciplinary; being able to be in stats courses, graphic design courses, programming courses, psychology courses... well, if I were a student now, I'd want take advantage of those wonderful distractions. (I did when I was finishing up, but did NOT take enough stats. Luckily this is fixable with online courses, to some degree.)

Overall, More Drinking Than Usual

I definitely had more fun drinking with people who knew a lot about drinks than I have in previous years. They knew about whisky, cocktails, wine, vodka infusions. Beer too. I was humbled by their depth of alcohol knowledge. Doesn't this convince you to come next year? Stanford threw a good party too, to try to improve the conference party scene.

Maybe you'll come next year.