Kahn Workshop Aesthetics of Data Visualization

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Copyright New York Times, 2008
© New York Times, 2008: this graph represents the amount of money made by movies as they were released in 2008, as a function of time.

Kahn Workshop: The Aesthetics of Data Visualization

Directed by D. Thiebaut
October 18 and 25, 2008
Kahn Liberal Arts Institute
Smith College

The Project

The amount of data collected and available today in our various fields of research has reached such a scale that we are lacking tools to explore the data. It is not uncommon for data sets to measure in millions or billions of items. What used to be story-driven research--ask the question first, and then use the data to answer it—seems like it is becoming data-driven research: gather the data, explore it along some of its multiple dimensions, and see what kind of story is being told. This shift should be taken with care, as one should bear in mind that there is no raw data; data is collected for a purpose. Peter Hall, a designer and writer, uses architecture and its geography in his remarks, but they apply as well to other fields: "What already exists is more than just the physical attributes of a terrain (topography, rivers, roads, buildings), but includes also the various hidden forces that underlie the workings of a given place." This is not a new phenomenon, and one only has to look at Mappae Mundi, a set of medieval maps mostly from the 11th century, to see how the influence of the Christian views of the time significantly distorted the visualization of the world. More...

Guest Speaker


The guest speaker is Colin Ware, Director of the Data Visualization Research Lab. which is part of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire. More...

Invited Talk: Perception and the Design of Visual Thinking Tools

Visual thinking is a process involving external representations of information, pattern finding mechanisms in the visual cortex of the brain, eye movements, and visual working memory with these components operating together to solve problems. I will give three examples that show how the application of elementary cognitive theory can help us explain large differences in the efficiency of visualizations. The first example addresses the question of when extra windows are needed in a geospatial visualization interface. The second example is an interactive system designed to allow reasoning with much larger network diagrams than can be normally be displayed a screen. The third example is based on the interactive graphical tools we have developed to analyze data obtained from tagged humpback whales. From this last example I will make the case, based on simple active vision-based arguments, that turning time varying data into spatial patterns is almost always the right thing to do. My broader goal will be to argue we need a discipline of aesthetics based on the realization that both cognitive tools and the human brain should be considered together as a dynamic cognitive system.


  • David Bickar (Chemistry) .
  • Thomas Ciufo (Visiting Artist, Arts & Technology) .
  • Robert Dorit (Biological Sciences) .
  • Judy Franklin (Computer Science) .
  • Virginia Hayssen (Biology) .
  • Christopher Loring (Director of Libraries)
  • Catherine McCune (Director Quantitative Learning Center)
  • Eitan Mendelowitz (Computer Science, Art) .
  • Chester Michalik (Art & photography)
  • Lee Spector (Computer Science/Cognitive Science, Hampshire College) .
  • Dominique Thiebaut, (Computer Science) organizer .
  • Colin Ware (Director of the Data Visualization Lab, University of New Hampshire) invited speaker .
  • Doreen Weinberger (Physics) .


  • Saturday Oct. 18, 2008, 9:00 am - 4 pm:
    Kahn Liberal Arts Institute Colloquium Room
    • Introduction
    • Colin Ware
    • Dominique Thiebaut
      lunch break
    • Colin Ware
    • Thomas Ciufo
    • Lee Spector
  • Saturday Oct. 25, 2008 9 am - 1 pm:
    Kahn Liberal Arts Institute Colloquium Room
    • Judy Franklin
    • David Bickar
    • Eitan Mendelowitz
      lunch break

Reader for Workshop

Suggested Additional Reading

  • Visual Thinking for Design. Colin Ware, Morgan Kaufman, 2008.
  • Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning, D. McCabe and A. Castel, Cognition 107, 343-352, 2008.

Follow-Up Meetings

12/5/08 Meeting

Lungrend visualization.gif

12/5/08 Meeting at Kahn Institute, 2:00-3:00 p.m.: Guest presenter Per Lundgren

The visualizations I would like to discuss concern mainly the concepts of drift and diffusion as treated in an undergraduate course on the function of electronic devices (transistors).
What I am struggling with is that:
**I strongly feel that the ability to "imagine" or visualize what is going on is really crucial for understanding
** and that it is very difficult (for me at least) to do a good job at helping the students to form their own functional images.
In this context "diffusion" is: net transport due to random motion of particles and spatial differences in particle concentration
and "drift" is: net transport due to the influence of a (weak) net force
Fairly many students display misconceptions regarding these phenomena, and we added more elements of visualization to address this issue.
There is a paper on our efforts at: http://www.ijee.dit.ie/OnlinePapers/Interactive/Lundgren/Lundgren04.htm
The link to the animations (with instructions/texts in Swedish) is: http://toolearn.portal.chalmers.se/
These animations are not all identical to those described in the paper above, but share most of the central features.

  • Dominique Thiebaut: Cartograms, a presentation on the cartograms of M. E. J. Newman, U. Michigan.

05/04/09 Meeting

  • Guest speaker: Larry Owens ( slides)
  • Kelly Dwan: From 2D brain scans to a 3D visualizer
  • Judy Franklin: Emergent Art from Pure Data Programming Environment for Computer Music
  • Dominique Thiebaut, Prefuse ( slides )