Time to spice up your visualization skills?


I love a visualization well done, whether by me or someone else. In fact, I love visualization period. I find there’s always something to learn by looking at an image or animation, and always look for something new and interesting I can learn.

Today I would like to share with readers some of the things I learned, saw, or admired over time.

Where to start? Visualization in Google Earth

Yes, we all know nowadays how to use Google Earth to plan our next vacation, check our old neighbor’s new house, etcetera. But visualization? Yes indeed. Just today I was at a roundtable meeting of Fig Tree members (Fig Tree is an NGO that supports international development projects) and I learned how Google Earth is used by many NGOs for project planning: for a start check the Mercy Corps‘ Rough Google Earth Guide, these map overlay tools, and the official gallery.

Here’s a tutorial on annotating Google Earth:

and some beautiful visualizations created using Matlab in conjunction with Google Earth.

Read a book, pick a course

There are scores of great books on visualization. I introduce two I really like in my more recent post Two great visualization books. Reader Ron DeSpain mentioned these free online courses in a comment:  Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization, by Roberto Cairo, which is also the author of  The functional art, a blog and a book, and Information Visualization MOOC, by Katy Börner and colleagues at the University of Indiana.

Be a generalist and a specialist at the same time

Specialize in one discipline if you can. See what the experts in that field do. For example I am a Geophysicist and do a lot of seismic visualization and interpretation, so I look at what folks like Steve Lynch, or Art Barnes to name a couple, and follow Agile Geoscience blog. Again, keep abreast of the latest technology: Google Earth is increasingly being used in seismic exploration planning and visualization. You can find some examples here and even get some seismic overlays and display them yourself: if you have Google Earth just download this KMZ file and double-click.

I am also always curious about other fields and browse for examples incessantly. I am interested in music, and I was thrilled to find this great review of Music Visualization. I am also interested in Astronomy and Planetary Exploration, and over time I have found some amazing visualizations.  This video for instance is a volume rendered animation of the star-forming region L1448 created by Nick Holliman (Durham University) in VolView, an open source volume visualization program.

Credits: Harvard Astronomical Medicine Project

Just recently I found on Visurus a time-lapse (1950 -2011) geocentric map of the visible universe.

A while back I learned a lot on from books like A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe, and its exploration of the relationships between nature, art, science, symbols, and numbers; I regularly go back to it.

Look for synergies and collaborations. Here’s what can happen when you put together a geologist and a design expert:

Don’t be afraid of using social media

Check answers on sites like Quora or Stack Overflow. Check regularly or better subscribe to visualization or specialistic blogs: I mentioned already VizThink and Fell in Love with Data.  I also like the excellent Datavisualization.ch and FlowingData, where you can actually find an extensive list of blogs.

Study what others do

Take a look at the groundbreaking work of Hans Roslins with his Gapminder:

Check this video on Designing for Visual Efficiency from Vizthink to learn how to declutter your visualizations:

Ignite Toronto 2: Ryan Coleman – Designing for visual efficiency at Ignite Toronto on Vimeo.

and this one on  Journalism in the age of data:

Journalism in the Age of Data from Geoff McGhee on Vimeo.

Looking for ideas?

Here’s an interesting visualization project from IMB: sign up on Many Eyes to not only browse several examples of visualizations but also to upload your own data and outsource the visualization project.

Color, color, color!

A subject I think is particularly important is how to use color in your presentations and visualizations. Use color sparingly and sensibly, and ad hoc. Know about color deficiencies and confusing color schemes and the difference a perceptually appropriate colormap can do. With Vischeck, Color Oracle, and Dichromacy you can simulate how people with different color vision deficiencies will see your images and decide if you need a different colormap; for two color contrast for presentations, webpages, diagrams, use the Accessibility Color Wheel. Select colormaps according to task, and avoid artifacts when using color blending. Reduce the hue range when possible and choose it based on the concept of color harmonization. After all, the hue circle isn’t really circular at all and contains non-spectral colors (purple). You can design harmonious schemes with Color Wheel Pro, and check the palettes’ mood using Colour monitor, a wonderful tool by Richard Weeler. Avoid at all costs rainbow and similar color palettes.

Finally, A fantastic resource on color: References and Resources for Visualization Professionals by by Robert Simmon at NASA’s Earth Observatory

Deep Zoom technology

Thanks to this technology you can now build interactive applications with seamless dynamic zooming. Look at Steve Lynch’s seismic visualization built using MS Silverlight, and Well Visualization in Prezi by Evan Bianco.

Regularly remind yourself to go back to the basics

The best tools are your brain and your hand. Draw and sketch a lot. Concept maps are a great tool for brainstorming and tinkering with ideas, whether on paper or your computer; check NASA’s Mars Exploration Concept Map. Finally, I strongly encourage you to read Experiences in Visual Thinking.

Want to make it your profession?

Read The Data Visualization Beginner’s Toolkit series from Fell in Love with Data blog. This is the introduction to the series. In the first post he reviews books and other resources. In the second post he introduces some rules and more importantly the software tools. There’s a  feature interview with Moritz Stefaner on data visualization freelancing:

Interview: Moritz Stefaner on Data Visualization Freelancing from FILWD on Vimeo.

And  if you are intimidated by having to pick up programming skills, he has a post that is just right for you.

Post Scriptum

It should go without saying, but unfortunately it does not: if data are sensitive, don’t forget about privacy.

Resources and tools

visualisingdata’s  essential collection of visualisation resources

Visualization Tools & Resources

How to avoid equidistant HSV colors

Non-uniform gradient creator

Colormap tool

Color Oracle – color vision deficiency simulation – stand alone (Window, Mac and Linux)

Dichromacy –  color vision deficiency simulation – open source plugin for ImageJ

Vischeck – color vision deficiency simulation – plugin for ImageJ and Photoshop (Windows and Linux)