See the Data for the Trees


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The consolidation of vast amounts of information into simple visual representations is one of the best ways to communicate. Charts and graphs make our lives easier. Remember the U.S. map after the 2000 Presidential election? The red or blue states signifying Bush or Gore and the lone Florida still in white told us more than thousands of numbers or words ever could. Emerging visualization tools have the potential to alter the way we navigate information. Taking the words and numbers of econtent and turning them into pictures, these new offerings make grasping content relationships much easier.

As an incoming freshman at a small liberal arts college, I had no clue what I wanted to major in. A major was like your whole life, dude! My methodology for choosing involved chatting with friends at 2a.m. and looking through hundreds of cool record covers for inspiration, divine or otherwise. What's a visually-oriented kid, who's OK at math, can write somewhat coherently, and has a decent grasp of history to do? As I was sitting in Economics 101, my major struck me like a proverbial lightning bolt. I really like drawing all these supply-and-demand curves; maybe I should do this for four years! Economics appeared to be a perfect way to make use of my visual brain and the consolidation of vast amounts of information into easy-to-understand visual representations became my preferred way of seeing the world.

For decades, Wall Street has been one of the most developed users of content-visualization tools. Taking complex tick-by-tick pricing and other data for stocks, bonds, and commodities and turning that data into charts makes seeing patterns a snap. In fact, an entire industry evolved around so-called technical analysis: the people and tools of trading based on charts. Professionals are actually paid for the fun of trading using visual cues like moving average oscillators, Fibonacci numbers, and Japanese candlestick patterns.

Interesting examples of content visualization at work can be found on the latest marketing sites for big-ticket items. Check out the Mini Cooper site: www.mini.com, where you can dynamically "trick out your Mini" with your own personalized color, wheel set, and trim. You see the results on-the-fly and can mix-and-match quickly.

Online stores have long dealt with user frustrations and high shopping cart-abandonment issues. Drilling down to find what you want at your average ecommerce site (especially if you don't exactly know what you want) just isn't that much fun. But consider some of the latest generation of shopping sites that make use of product visualization. The Yankee Candle Company has a nifty custom candle section of its site, www.yankeecandle.com. There, users build gift orders visually rather than using the old multi-click linear approach. Yankee Candle offers dynamic real-time changes in the product's color, shape, messaging, packaging, gift-wrap, and other options—all of which can be visualized, which makes it easy and fun to create that perfect gift for Aunt Gertrude. The Yankee Candle site, built by Internet solutions company Molecular, has produced a significant increase in the average candle order and a big drop in call center volume due to much better user experience. It turns out visualization pays for online shopping sites.

And content won't be left off visualizations' new wave: Companies including Cambridge, UK-based anacubis (www.anacubis. com) are revolutionizing the way online information is being delivered and consumed. By presenting relationships between content sets visually, anacubis presents data from its information partners in a form that is simple to view and easy to navigate. The anacubis application organizes vast amounts of text content into map-like relationships allowing information professionals to explore visually. For example, with anacubis connected to the Hoovers database, relationships between various companies, executives, board members, divisions, and industries come to life, allowing users to quickly focus in on what's relevant for them.

With the free anacubis viewer for Google, relationships and links to and from each search term are immediately visible. Rather than the traditional linear search using straight text, visualization of the information makes exploring fun again. When I messed around with the anacubis visualization of my Google searches, I felt those little goosebumps of awe like the first time I used a beta version of Netscape 1.0 way back in 1995.

It seems to me we're just starting to ride this new wave of content visualization. Sure, we've made amazing progress since I first drew a supply-and-demand graph with a swell multi-colored pen, but I suspect there are plenty of cool things right around the bend. I'd love to visualize relationships between real-time online news stories and the related historical data. Is anyone doing that? If not, I can hardly wait to see it