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Feb 15, 2006 10:43pm

baychi talk

I'm not sure why I didn't post about this beforehand, but it's kind of a big deal. Rashmi invited me to speak and demo at the monthly BayCHI meeeting on information visualization. Eric and I went to PARC's auditorium to show a bit of our work among a group of other distinguished speakers.

Jock Mackinlay of Tableau Software was the main presenter, and spoke for an hour about his company's visualization software. It's sort of an Excel-for-visual-thinkers, and uses VizQL (a kind of visual analogue to SQL) to display and manipulate databases. Jock critiqued Excel's graphing features (simplistic, assume you already know what you want) and showed Tableau's possibilities for manipulating visual display of information and automagically assuming optimal displays for different collections of data. I was skeptical of the software's output when it was first described (How dare they replace the work of a competent designer!) but totally sold by the end of the demo.

Two reasons for this:

  1. Realistic goals. Tableau is a step above Excel, but not a huge one, and the information displays it supports are still within common visual expectations for normal people. This is advanced software for corporate Excel ninjas, not a generalized WattenbergBot.
  2. Deterministic results. Suggested graph styles are not arbitrary, and they have a deep set of rules for effective ways to display many kinds of information (categories, dates, numbers).

Jeff Heer followed with a ten-minute description of a force-directed graph of Friendster connections he produced using Prefuse, based on ethnographic research with Danah Boyd. Quote of the evening: "People played with the slider until the graph looked right, and then marvelled at how smart the algorithm was."

Josh On talked about TheyRule and other work, after doing a quick role-playing experiment with audience members. "Place your hand on the shoulder of the person in this group you've known the longest."

We finished out the evening, exceeding our alotted ten minutes by 50% because we didn't come to PARC to be succint, dammit! We showed five projects, breezing through Mappr, In The News, Root Markets, Cabspotting, and Backchannel.

The evening ended with a brief trip the British Bankers' Club in Menlo Park, and then home. Thanks Rashmi!


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