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Exploring Data Visualization

For the past few months I’ve been obsessively learning about data visualization so I’m posting about my exploration with links to everything (books, blogs, graphics, people, etc.) This topic fascinates because it brings together all of my studies including art, art history, theatrical design, computer science and software engineering.

Last fall, I found the book Visualizing Data: Exploring and Explaining Data with the Processing Environment by Ben Fry. I can’t remember how I found it. Maybe it was in the O’Reilly email of new titles. Since I work at a credit reporting agency, there is no end to the data. It seemed like the perfect opportunity learn about graphics, so I started typing out Fry’s examples and then applying them to my data. Fry is one of the creators of a graphics library called Processing which uses java. This made the examples pretty easy to understand. I’m not finished with this book yet. The examples get more and more challenging the further you go, but the author seems to enjoy interacting with his readers and wants people to have a positive experience with his code.

So last Fall, I was having fun with these examples, and then I went to GTAC. I know I’ve already written about James Whittaker’s keynote, but just bear with me. Seeing how transfixed the crowd was with the few data visualizations he uses for testing, I felt something click in my head. There aren’t many moments in life when we get total clarity, but I finally had a huge one and decided not to let it go.

Before, I had just been playing with data visualization and happy that it fed my artistic side, but now, I was in it for keeps. When I came home, I looked at the other books that Ben Fry was referencing and found the ultimate classic of data visualization. If you only ever read one book about this topic, that book should be Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd edition. After I read this book, I had a talk with my thesis advisor and decided to do a thesis on data visualization and software testing.

Please note that Tufte will not tell you what type of graph to use in any particular situation. For that, I turned to Head First Statistics. It goes over this in Chapter 1 and is the most accessible statistics book I have ever read.

Since blogging is such a great font of information, I went out looking for blogs and found several that I really enjoy. There are definitely other worthwhile blogs on data visualization.These are the ones I’m reading regularly:

Jorge Camoes’ Charts
Visual Business Intelligence (Stephen Few’s blog)
Excel Charts and Tutorials by Peltier Technical Services
Information Ocean

A few weeks ago, Edward Tufte offered a seminar in Atlanta, and I was fortunate enough to go. It’s pricey, but you get all four of his lovely hardback books are included which somewhat offsets the cost of admission. I found some excellent notes that were taken a few days later in Raleigh on Justin Wehr’s blog. I could tell that Dr. Tufte had given his prezo a few (hundred) times, but seeing him present his material provoked some really deep thinking. When the presentation was over, I walked to a bench in the hotel lobby, and put together the bones of my thesis. Visionaries such as Dr. Tufte always inspire my best thinking.

Currently, I’m reading through lots of research papers about the visualization of source code. I’ll make a separate blog post for that. Well, there might be several separate blog posts for that. For the first time in my life, I feel completely engaged in what I’m doing at work and at school.

4 Comments on "Exploring Data Visualization"

  • Eric says

    Short of James Whittaker’s THUD metaphor, I don’t get what data visualization is, but you’ve certainly grabbed my attention, Marlena. Are there any practical applications to a mostly black box tester like myself?

    BTW – great blog! Keep it up!

  • marlena says

    Thanks for the comment, Eric. There certainly are applications for black box testing. I’m putting together more posts about data visualization and how it applies to quality including black box testing. In the meantime, browsing around Edward Tufte or Ben Fry’s web-site will peak your interest even more :o)

  • Sounds like our careers are taking a similar path. There are lots of good visualization/info design blogs out there; I’d be happy to send you the ones I read.

    Where are you in school, if you don’t mind me asking? Do you have an adviser who specializes in info design?

  • marlena says

    Thanks Justin, blogs would be great! I was looking at yours today and was very impressed.

    I go to school at Southern Polytechnic State University in a suburb of Atlanta. None of the faculty specialize in vizualization, so research is challenging. Part of the reason I like blogging is that it helps me see what other people are doing.

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