Lecture 2

Visualization Basics

Some basic principles from Norman:

Many analytical reasoning tasks follow this process

People understand new information relative to what is already understood

Schneiderman: “Overview first, zoom and filter, details on demand”

The Americas from a different perspective

When information is first presented, the user should be able to quickly orient themselves.

When a map program starts up it should start up with a view that makes it obvious what the map is showing. Maybe that is using your current location with your position clearly labelled, or maybe its a view the country or city that you are accessing the map program from. The zoom factor should also be appropriate enough - if you are initially zoomed in too far you may not see enough landmarks to judge the scale of the map.

Naturalness is an important design principle - better when the properties of the representation match the properties of the thing being represented. Representations that make use of spatial and perceptual relationships make more effective use of our brains. If these representations use arbitrary symbols then we need to use mental transformations, mental comparisons and other mental processes, forcing us to think reflectively. In experiential cognition we perceive and react efficiently. In reflective cognition we use our decision making skills.

The purpose of visualization is to make it easy for the user to see the patterns, the similarities, the differences in the data. This involves both the variation in the data itself and the ability of a human being to perceive variation.

In general you do not want to let the computer use its default values. Unless you are using a specific program for a specific field the default values will not be right for your work.

Principles of graphical excellence  from Tufte

Significant Digits

Your table should not show more accuracy than the accuracy of the data collection. The computer will happily compute an average out to an alarming number of digits, but if you only took measurements to one decimal point then that's as far as you should show any derived (average, min, max, median, etc) values. Programs may also reduce your significant digits by eliminating trailing zeros (turning 4.20 into 4.2) so you will want to force all the data of the same type collected in the same way to have the same number of significant digits.

Keep your audience in mind when creating a table. You will want to keep all of your data in its highest resolution form, but when you present it, present just the right amount of detail for the people you will be speaking to. More technical people will want more detail; less technical people will want the information at a higher level. Some people want to see detailed trends, others just overall trends. Don't reuse your charts for different audiences, create new ones targetted towards the specific audience.


You have several general choices of font styles to use

Since we are focusing on interactive computer-based visualizations, you should start with a sans-serif font like Helvetica and only change it if you have a very good reason.

all visualizations should be well labeled with a meaningful title and an explanatory legend


Avoid fully saturated colours (e.g. 255 0 0 red.) Look around you, most of the world is not bright primary colours. Pastels and colour mixtures are easier on the eyes - color brewer etc

And some more about colour:

It would be good if the colours you choose also work for people who are colour blind.

8 percent of men
1 percent of women
Are you colour blind? You can check on wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishihara_color_test

Here is an image from my backyard run through vischeck to show how it would look for 3 of the more common types of colour blindness.

You should at least make sure that you data doesnt blend together or disappear for people who are colour blind The colours I chose in the last couple graphs are OK, but an even better way is to avoid using green in your charts since red/geen is the most common form of colour blindness.  Photoshop can be used to check images (View menu, Proof Seup, Color Blindness), as can the tool at http://colororacle.cartography.ch/ and couple good web sites to check your graphics are:  http://www.vischeck.com/vischeck/ and http://colorfilter.wickline.org/

A really good book to look at for an introduction to this sort of thing is Edward Tufte's 'The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.'

Another good reference is Robert Harris' Information Graphics - A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference.

What should I do when I get a new dataset

Data mining By Jiawei Han, Micheline Kamber

Data Cleaning

Data Integration - How can I combine different data sets from different sources

Data Transformation
aggregation leads us into the more general concept of data reduction

Miles and Huberman (1994):
Data reduction is not something separate from analysis. It is part of analysis. The researcher’s decisions—which data chunks to code and which to pull out, which evolving story to tell—are all analytic choices. Data reduction is a form of analysis that sharpens, sorts, focuses, discards, and organizes data in such a way that “final” conclusions can be drawn and verified.

Data Reduction - gives you a reduced dataset that gives you similar analytical results


data moves through several forms and filters on its way to being visualized and analysed. Its important to keep track of who has done what to the data at each step so the validitiy of the final prouct can be ascertained, and if any issues arrise with the original data collection or the intermediate steps then its easy to find which data products are affected.

You wouldn't just grab data off the web and assume that its correct, would you?

A nice overview is given in http://www.cs.indiana.edu/pub/techreports/TR618.pdf

Visual Analytics

The bible of the field is James J. Thomas and Kristin A. Cook. Illuminating the Path: The Research and Development Agenda for Visual Analytics. IEEE Computer Society, 2005. ISBN: 0-7695-2323-4. [Available online as a free PDF.]

A much shorter overview whitepaper from the University of Konstanz: http://infovis.uni-konstanz.de/papers/2009/edbs2008.pdf

"Visual Analytics is the science of analytical reasoning facilitated by interactive visual interfaces. People use visual analytics tools and techniques to synthesize information and derive insight from massive, dynamic, ambiguous, and often conflicting data, provide timely, defensible, and understandable assesments; and communicate assesment effectively for action. The overall goal is to detect the expected and discover the unexpected. "

The goal of visual analytics is to facilitate this analytical reasoning process through the creation of software that maximizes human capacity to perceive, understand, and reason about complex and dynamic data and situations.

It must build upon an understanding of the reasoning process, as well as an understanding of underlying cognitive and perceptual principles, to provide mission-appropriate interactions that allow analysts to have a true discourse with their information. The goal is to facilitate high-quality human judgment with a limited investment of the analysts’ time.

Visual analytics is a multidisciplinary field that includes the following focus areas:

The use of visual representations and interactions to accelerate rapid insight into complex data is what distinguishes visual analytics software from other types of analytical tools. Visual representations translate data into a visible form that highlights important features, including commonalities and anomalies. These visual representations make it easy for users to perceive salient aspects of their data quickly. Augmenting the cognitive reasoning process with perceptual reasoning through visual representations permits the analytical reasoning process to become faster and more focused.

Visual representations invite the user to explore his or her data. This exploration requires that the user be able to interact with the data to understand trends and anomalies, isolate and reorganize information as appropriate, and engage in the analytical reasoning process. It is through these interactions that the analyst achieves insight.

Analysts may be asked to perform several different types of tasks:

Steps in the Analytical Process
  1. Determine how to address the issue that has been posed, what resources to use, and how to allocate time to various parts of the process to meet deadlines.
  2. Gather information containing the relevant evidence and become familiar with it, and incorporate it with the knowledge he or she already has.
  3. Generate multiple candidate hypotheses.
  4. Evaluate these alternative explanations in light of evidence and assumptions to reach a judgment about the most likely explanations or outcomes.
  5. Consider alternative explanations that were not previously considered.
  6. Create reports, presentations, or other products that summarize the analytical judgments. These products summarize the judgments made and the supporting reasoning that was developed, and the uncertainties that remain during the analytical process. These products can then be shared with others.

Analysts must deal with data that is dynamic, incomplete, often deceptive, and evolving and they often must come to conclusions within a limited period of time.

Analysis products are expected to clearly communicate the assessment or forecast, the evidence on which it is based, knowledge gaps or unknowns, the analyst’s degree of certainty in the judgment, and any significant alternatives and their indicators.

Visual analytics systems must capture this information and facilitate its presentation in ways that meet the needs of the recipient of the information.

Coming Next Time


last revision 1/2/11