Sticks and Rocks: Illustrating the Problem?

8th November 2007 @ 7:52 am
information-visualisation, data-mining, networks and Maps
Over at Data Mining, Matthew Hurst takes exception to JC Herz's assessment of his map of the blogosphere as "(approx.) "completely useless"". Having recently engaged in several discussions about beautiful-but-useless visualizations I continue to insist that not everything has to be useful; perhaps Matthew doesn't intend for his map of the blogosphere to necessarily be useful in a traditional sense. That said, I have to admit that JC's blunt assessment is easy to agree with, and I had a similar reaction to the maps when I first saw them myself.

After the initial wave of early Google Maps mashups, some members of the mapping hacks community settled on the term "Red Dot Fever" (coined by Jo Walsh or Schuyler Erle, I think) to sum up the common patterns they were seeing. In a similar fashion (affectionate, but with a critical eye), my colleague Mike Migurski calls the prevailing network visualization technique the "Sticks and Rocks Diagram".

Matthew's images clearly have lots in common with the kinds of work catalogued meticulously at Visual Complexity. Sadly, I think a lot of the work there (some of my own included) is better at illustrating the problem than really informing us about the data that drives it. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with a popular approach to something, but when the results are so often misunderstood I bet we can all do better.

I've read a lot of research papers that would suggest that visualizing large complex networks is hard. Throwing the data at the screen and seeing what sticks is possibly a road to understanding, but I suspect it's an incredibly long one. Calling something "completely useless" doesn't drive our field forward or help open it up to new audiences, but the sentiment underpinning that reaction is something we could all work to understand better.

To me, red-dot-fever maps and sticks-and-rocks diagrams always look like works in progress.