Innovation & Design

IBM's Data-Visualization Champion


At Big Blue, Martin Wattenberg is developing leading-edge projects to bolster the ability to read, share, and understand data in new ways

"I see it now! Aha!" exclaims IBM (IBM) researcher Martin Wattenberg dramatically. He flourishes his sentence with a good-natured laugh. He's describing how he believes a layperson should ideally react to data visualizations such as, say, a world map emblazoned with up-to-the-minute population data or a bubble chart of billionaires in various geographic regions. A software programmer and artist whose computer-based work has been shown at venues such as New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and who holds a PhD in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley, Wattenberg is a polymath striving to make the field of data visualization more aesthetic and social than typical ho-hum Microsoft (MSFT) Excel spreadsheets and charts.

If Wattenberg has his way, most of us will use some form of the next generation of experimental graphics software that he is working on at IBM to create eye-popping visuals. And we'll react to them with the revelatory joy of an inventor experiencing an "aha!" moment in the lab.

When Wattenberg, who grew up in Amherst, Mass., talks about the potential of charts—which usually bring to mind snooze-inducing materials presented in PowerPoint presentations or corporate annual reports—he adds audible exclamation points to his descriptive sentences. His goal is to "democratize data" via Web-based software applications that allow anyone, from a junior high school student to a C-suite executive, to present statistics or other information in elegant, engaging visuals, which they can subsequently post online with ease. The data can range from the recurrence of words in the best-selling Harry Potter books to the comparative fuel efficiency of various automobiles.

"The Wisdom of Crowds"

The upside for businesses? Companies can efficiently tap the much-touted "wisdom of crowds", both from within and outside of a corporation, if those crowds have the tools to create their own thoughtful data visualizations. In other words, customers can in effect deliver invaluable market research; employees can more quickly organize information; and managers can more easily analyze data from both of these sources. IBM, in fact, is already deploying a firewall-protected version of Wattenberg's latest online data-visualization project, Many Eyes, among its staff, to mine for data among its employees.

Wattenberg designed Many Eyes with collaborator and IBM colleague Fernanda B. Viégas. Earlier this year, they debuted a public, alpha version of the program, which allows users to upload any set of data to a Web site and transform the information into online graphics, ranging from tree maps (a series of color-coded, hierarchically organized squares) to network diagrams (points labeled with information, arranged in compelling patterns and connected via lines to illustrate relationships).

The site also includes a discussion area where users post comments about the visualizations and engage in debates on the data represented. The project isn't just about creating pretty pictures, although the graphs are eye-catching. These are neat, visual condensations of information that prompt deep analysis.

Traditionally, complex data visualization has been the realm of scientists and financial analysts. Sure, more and more students and businesspeople of all stripes are using programs such as Excel to make simple graphs to present their research in classrooms and boardrooms. But Wattenberg believes that as information becomes available via online archives, Web search engines, and affordable computing and Internet access, data visualization will quickly become a new form of literacy. "It is a bad situation if only a few experts have a way of understanding data," Wattenberg says. "Think about reading. [Communities function] better if everyone can read. I believe data visualization, like reading, makes people smarter. When they have access to more information, they can have more interesting conversations."

Why Visualization Matters

Wattenberg is not the only software designer with this thought—the topic is hot, and competition to create and distribute data-visualization applications is heating up. Google (GOOG) recently acquired the software Trendalyzer, made by Swedish nonprofit Gapminder, which makes animated graphs (see BusinessWeek.com 2/22/06, "Graphing the Development Gap"). The founders of the startup company Swivel have also created a free tool that allows the public to create basic graphs from any data and post them online.

Of course, data is only truly valuable when accurate. "Yes, we're concerned about people using inaccurate data," Wattenberg says. "But what's interesting is that we've seen some data problems uncovered, even in visualizations [that users say are] made with information from reputable sources such as the U.S. government. In many cases, we’ve seen people fill in missing data." Making data available online in the form of easy-to-digest graphics, Wattenberg points out, can actually help pinpoint and correct inaccuracies more efficiently.

Wattenberg's approach is set apart, moreover, by his focus on aesthetics and a spectrum of visual styles that reach beyond the traditional bar, line, and pie charts that Swivel or Excel offer. Wattenberg and Viégas have designed the graphics templates to be clean, imaginative, and unusual, to better engage both the graph makers and graph analyzers.

Wattenberg completed his first high-profile data-visualization project, Map of the Market, in 1998, when the first dot-com boom was still going strong. At the time, Wattenberg was the director of research and development at Smartmoney.com, the Web site of personal finance magazine SmartMoney, published by Dow Jones (DJ) and Hearst. A newly minted PhD, he was hired to explore new ways to present financial data online.

Soon after landing this job, Wattenberg wanted to better understand how the stock market worked, with the idea that this tool might be deployed on the Smartmoney.com site. So he created a software application that could translate live stock-market data from Nasdaq and Dow Jones into a tree map so he could see trends, such as the industries that included companies with the most popular stocks. He then developed that visualization into a public, online application that presents data on more than 600 publicly traded corporations. "I needed to make the prototype of Map of the Market to understand the market," he admits. "That project was a touchstone for me. It was incredibly helpful. Suddenly, I could see relationships that only traders saw. Aha! It convinced me of the value of visualization."

Wattenberg continued to experiment with creating data tools, often in his spare time. Many of these side projects were made as personal artworks, allowing him the freedom to explore the possibilities of the field without being restricted by any sort of sales pressure or corporate agenda. But many of his art projects have potential business applications. A notable one is The Shape of Song, which maps rhythmic patterns of music into graceful onscreen arcs and, in essence, illustrates how to write a popular song that will sell millions of copies. Wattenberg says several musicians have contacted him about using the software to visualize their compositions, although to date he's unaware of any producers who have used the diagrams to formulate hit tunes.

NASA Commission

In 2002, NASA commissioned Wattenberg to create an online interface for its database of 800 works of space-themed artworks by the likes of Andy Warhol and Annie Leibovitz. Rather than simply design a generic navigation system, Wattenberg devised a galaxy-themed cluster of onscreen stars, each one corresponding to an individual art work. Visitors to the NASA site can rearrange the information to create their own groupings of artworks, arranging them by common elements such as "concepts of the future" or "space walks."

In 2002, IBM staffers took notice of Wattenberg's work, which he presented at the annual InfoVis conference, hosted yearly by the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers, a trade organization. It's the biggest gathering of data-visualization experts in the world, attracting representatives from the likes of Yahoo! (YHOO) and AT&T (ATT).

"We always dabbled in information visualization. It was always important to us to find designers who could suggest alternative interfaces for software and present different views," recalls Irene Greif, who is the director of the Collaborative User Experience Group at IBM's Watson Research Center in Cambridge, Mass. "We saw Martin's work at InfoVis, and had him in to meet us. We were interested in the fact that he's an artist, a computer scientist, and a mathematician. We thought he could talk to every constituency." Wattenberg joined Big Blue in May, 2002, where he currently works as a researcher and manages a staff of four at the Visual Communication Lab in Cambridge.

The Value of Collaboration

There, Wattenberg has been focusing mostly on the relationships between collaboration and data visualization, with two goals: to investigate how the public collaborates online (via wikis and other tools) and to develop software concepts that might one day make it into IBM products for companies and consumers.

In 2003, he created his first high-profile project for IBM, a software application called History Flow, in collaboration with Viégas, at the time a PhD candidate in media arts and sciences at MIT's famed Media Lab who was interning with him. (She has since joined joined the company to work with Wattenberg full time.) History Flow traces the editing and writing patterns on Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia that relies on posts from users around the globe for its content. The result is a series of visualizations of Wikipedia entries on topics such as "capitalism," that show swooping lines and dramatic graphs that resemble the Grand Canyon. The tool is available for free at IBM's Web site.

Though that project is still live, for now Wattenberg and Viégas are focusing on how people are using Many Eyes—both in the public, online sphere and internally within IBM. "As a research project, Many Eyes is showing and highlighting what was wrong with our previous knowledge management," says Greif. "Suddenly, we're seeing data fly off our employees' hard disks and from their minds and into this application. And I can say there are IBM [product development] groups that are actively planning to use some aspect of Many Eyes in their products" for consumers.

For his part, Wattenberg couldn't be more pleased to share the "aha!" moments. (To see a slide show of Wattenberg's data-visualization projects, click here.)


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