Magazine article Information Management

From the Punched Card to the Web: Data Visualization Is a Viable Strategy for Almost Any Large Information Space, So Why Not Use It to Work with Shared Data? (Business Matters)

Magazine article Information Management

From the Punched Card to the Web: Data Visualization Is a Viable Strategy for Almost Any Large Information Space, So Why Not Use It to Work with Shared Data? (Business Matters)

Article excerpt

At the Core

This article:

* Examines the history of data visualization

* Discusses the merits of data visualization

For as long as computers have been able to display graphics, data visualization has been a dream of users and system designers.

It's more than a dream, however. Data visualization is already a huge success, and everyone with a personal computer uses it every day. This visualization is the graphical user interface (GUI) and its "desktop metaphor." The desktop vision presented on Windows and Macintosh systems is working proof that the right visualization can be put to work today to meet the real needs of real organizations and the people they employ. But once people realize that they are using visualization to deal with their standard desktop data, another question arises: Why not use visualization to work with shared data?

Once the user moves off the desktop into a catalog, directory, or any shared information resource, he or she typically reverts back to a mode of typing queries, pressing "enter," and reading lists of results. Personal computer (PC) user interfaces used to be this way (for example, DIR/Won MS-DOS), but those interfaces are history. It doesn't take a wild-eyed futurist to predict that one way or another, the world eventually will begin using visual interfaces for shared information. No one is sure what those visual interfaces will look like, however; it is still early in the game of building the visual interfaces of tomorrow.

Still, there are some strong guideposts illustrating what the future of information interfaces and data visualization may look like. Before considering these, however, it is important to survey the history of user interfaces in order to spot the big trends, to consider the bad reasons to do visualization, and pitfalls that may stand in the way of doing a good job. Perhaps most importantly, there are a few basic rules for achieving excellence in data graphics. While data visualization may be new, graphic design isn't, and there are some good guidelines to follow.

The History of User Interfaces

It all began with Herman Hollerith and his punched card, which was the main user interface to computers for the first few decades that computers existed. Dealing with small Hollerith cards was awkward and painful. One could transfer 80 characters, more or less, back and forth between the computer and the outside world. Eventually, punched cards became obsolete in favor of screens. Primitive screens, such as the IBM mainframe application screen, remain in use today in many legacy applications. Like the punched cards, early screens were still 80 characters wide, but there were a couple of dozen rows, and the characters could now be in color. These screens, though primitive by today's standards, allowed for a lot more information than the punched card enabled.

The notion of communicating between people and computers with text-filled screens remained dominant for a long time. A more advanced method, such as a "VT100" terminal from Digital Equipment Corp., followed the mainframe screen. The difference between this and the mainframe screen is that the text came in multiple sizes and with some formatting effects, resulting in the display of more information on the screen.

Eventually, the PC swept away everything that preceded, particularly once it was equipped with data visualization muscle in the form of the GUI. Perhaps the most advanced expression of the PC-centric view of the world was the Visual Basic programming language. It offered much more information than one could build into any of the previous generations of interface technology.

Then in the early 1990s, the World Wide Web came along and literally changed the world. The Web was in one sense a step sideways, because a Web page can contain about the same amount of information as any other window in the GUI. But it offered many other advantages that enabled it to (mostly) displace desktop interfaces and become the front-end to nearly everything. …

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