Impressions from VIS ’18

The VIS ’18 Conference concluded a few weeks ago, and I finally had some time to sit down and pull together a few reflections about this year’s conference. For the second time ever, VIS ventured to Europe, and this year the meeting was held in Berlin, Germany. Attendance was an all-time record with 1256 participants. To handle such a large group, the meeting was held in the Estrel Hotel (shown above) which was rumored to be the largest hotel in Germany. It is located in the eastern part of Berlin, and it was difficult for me not to think about how different circumstances are today from some 30 years ago when few of us would have been able to set foot there.

germany

A clear theme that permeated the conference this year was the emergence of AI, machine learning, and related technologies, and just how visualization might connect to these topics. Many researchers feel that visualization can play a key role in developing “explainable AI” in the future. Pat Hanrahan’s keynote talk at the VDS Symposium perfectly aligned to this theme and was thoughtful and inspirational as usual. He defined analytical thinking as “A structured approach to answering questions and making decisions based on facts and data” and argued for its importance in our daily lives. He also characterized “responsible analysis” as being explainable, understandable, transparent, fair, vetted, and ethical, and communicated his belief that data visualization can and should be an important component of this concept.

In another invited talk at VDS, Kirk Goldsberry of ESPN, formerly with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, spoke about his experiences bringing data visualization to sports analytics. He is perhaps most famous for his heatmap visualizations of shot locations in professional basketball. Much of his talk focused on why we don’t see visualization used more in sports analytics. One simple answer he gave was “politics” but he enumerated three more specific reasons: 1. The constraints of media; 2. Sports analysts don’t know how to make visualizations; and 3. Sports executives don’t demand visualizations – it’s simply not a part of their culture. He also argued that visualization experts underestimate how much general managers only care about an answer (“Just tell me how much the house should cost, dude.”) In a very pertinent metaphor, Kirk believes that visualization scientists are good take at take-off and flying the plane, but we need to be better at landing it. He also interjected what was likely my favorite quote of the entire conference when he characterized legendary NBA player and announcer Charles Barkley as “more of a qualitative social scientist.” And I learned from Kirk’s talk that Harvard University has only eliminated one academic department in its history: geography.

This year VIS hosted a day-long VisInPractice event which included many invited talks presented by visualization practitioners. I only was able to see about half the talks and they were terrific. In one, Shan He of Uber presented the company’s Kepler geovisualization toolkit and system. It looked simply fantastic and left me eager for the opportunity to try it out. In another presentation, Lisa Charlotte Rost described her former and newly updated blog review of visualization authoring tools. She analyzed the growing space of tools and highlighted the rise of “data drawing apps” such as Lyra, Data Illustrator, and Charticulator. She did conclude with some thoughts about what all visualization author tools must improve at: better user interfaces, make it easier to build artsy, responsive charts, and make the software act more as a teacher, helping the user to learn the paradigm and tool as one uses it.

I greatly enjoyed the practitioner symposium and lamented the talks during it that I was unable to see. As visualization research becomes more and more focused and narrower in scope, I tend to miss the more design-focused work developing interesting and creative visualizations that we used to see at VIS. New workshops and symposia have sprung up to fill that void, such as OpenVis, Tapestry, Information+, and eyeo. (I’m looking forward to attending Tapestry for the first time next week.)

Beyond these symposia, recently I’ve also enjoyed following on Twitter and through their blogs a number of the stars of the visualization practitioner community, people such as Lynn Cherny, Andy Kirk, Neil Richards, Cole Knaflic, Scott Murray, and John Schwabish. Heck, even though he’s a professor, I’ll lump Alberto Cairo in there too. All these people consistently develop and identify interesting, thought-provoking visualizations, usually grounded in some domain and data set. I’ve found many of the visualizations in their posts to be inspirational in my own work and I also use many of them as examples to show in my visualization classes. I’d really welcome more involvement by these folks at VIS in the future.

vis18

One small thread of an idea in visualization design that I noticed throughout the conference was the use of motion and animation. The NY Times’ March ’18 story about effects of racism was described to use the “wandering dots” technique, the Times’ former work on helping to illustrate uncertainty in elections by using a spinning roulette wheel metaphor, and HOPs (hypothetical outcome plots) that illustrate uncertainty by making random draws from a distribution and animating through the resulting different visualizations, all were examples of this idea. While some of these visualizations are now a few years old, it was interesting to me how this idea popped up in different talks throughout the conference.

As for papers that caught my eye, I tend to gravitate toward the InfoVis Conference sessions in general, so most were from there. Just a few of the many that stood out (mostly because of my own personal interests) include:

  • The Draco system for embedding visualization design principles as constraints that can drive the generation of appropriate visualizations for a given data set
  • Efforts to develop new metrics for how users interact with visualization interfaces
  • The VAP system that automatically (drawing from dblp, the vispub data set, and the keyvis data set) generates text profiles, augmented by visualizations, of visualization researchers given just their name
  • Studies of different visualizations’ efficacies on phones and watches
  • Techniques for unifying tables and tables with text in long document viewers
  • A survey and analysis of uses and popularity of visualization dashboards
  • The Charticulator system for creating visualizations from data sets without needing to program
  • The ATOM grammar and toolkit for constructing unit-style visualizations
  • Litvis.org, a site and approach for creating visualization design, explanation, narrative, and reflection notebooks, much as done with Jupyter notebooks for data analysis.

I’ll shamelessly add a plug for two papers in-part from my research group: our work on the low cost ICE-T approach to evaluating the value of a visualization and the Voder system that combines interactive data facts with visualizations to help data analysis and presentation.

Oh, I learned once again a simple maxim for the conference: If you’re going to present a paper about color, be ready for objections after your talk.

Topics receiving focus at the InfoVis Conference are always changing. For fun, I grabbed the conference session titles/topics from both this year and ten years ago to see how things have changed. Below is a list of the sessions, 2008 is on the left and 2018 on the right. Right away, one can see how much the conference has grown, almost doubling the number of sessions over the ten years. Beyond that, there is a core of consistent topics, but new themes are emerging. Two that jumped out to me include interaction with different types of displays (Immersive analytics and Devices: large & small) and the rise of perceptual/cognitive studies and uncertainty (three sessions this year).

infovis-topics

Perhaps the topic of most discussion across the entire week was the evolution of the conference itself. A small committee has been studying the possibilities for how the meeting may evolve in the future. It has been noted that the preponderance of different conferences and symposia within the meeting may confuse newcomers who aren’t quite sure where their work fits. This review committee presented the results of their study to the conference during Wednesday’s lunch session. One potential option is to unify more, resulting in one main conference with many subareas underneath it. This seems to be the most popular potential path forward.

Many details remain to be worked out, however, and unfortunately those details (e.g., what are the subareas, what is the new conference named, how does the reviewing work, etc.) are quite challenging. The growing size of the meeting can be viewed both positively and negatively. The growth indicates the popularity and increased interest in visualization, which is terrific. However, that growth also results in more parallel sessions and conflicts, and just an overall busier and more hectic week. (Perhaps the most common sentence I heard uttered during my week there was “Oh, I missed that presentation.”)

Nonetheless, I think that keeping a large central showcase conference for our discipline, much like CHI is for the HCI research community, is likely a good thing. It provides an opportunity for many people to meet and exchange ideas. We may potentially see subareas grow and blossom into their own meetings. For CHI, related conferences such as UIST, CSCW, Multimedia, ISS, and others did just that. We even have seen this to a lesser degree in visualization with the emergence of symposia such as OpenVis, Tapestry, and Information+, as I mentioned earlier in this post. One difference in the visualization community is the presence of geographically-based conferences such as EuroVis and PacificVis that are not focused subareas, but smaller versions of the broad discipline as a whole. Well, it will certainly be interesting to see how things develop over the next few years.

Next year the VIS Conference moves to Canada as it will be held in Vancouver in October. Vancouver is a beautiful city and I would not be surprised if a new attendance record is set yet again.

Finally, I wanted to end with a picture. On Friday afternoon after the conference had ended, some colleagues and I wandered around to a number of the must-see tourist locations in the city. One was Checkpoint Charlie, the infamous crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. While there, I snapped the photo below. The text reads “You are leaving the America sector”, but I couldn’t help thinking about the irony (?) of the KFC sign just below/above it. Given enough time, I guess things can and do change.

chch

 

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Author: John Stasko

A professor and data visualization researcher in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech.

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