08
Jan
08

Online data visualization, one year in

A year ago two innovative online services launched to the public: Swivel and Many Eyes. These sites promised to offer easy-to-use data visualization capabilities to web users for any data set they uploaded themselves.
Here’s a brief review of the capabilities of these services and their progress over the last 12 months.

Swivel

Created by a San Francisco startup team funded by Halsey Minor, the founder of CNET, this site is targeted at the young Web 2.0-savvy demographic.  Users upload data in CSV format; Swivel has received over 8,000 user contributions to date, currently growing at somewhere below a dozen new uploads per day.  The site automatically produces multiple PNG visualizations using the Ploticus rendering library, and generates the standard set of 2D bar, line and pie charts, plus some map output through mashup with Google Maps.
Swivel makes it very easy to embed their charts into other pages.  They have launched an Official Source program, though there are few of these so far.  Swivel hopes to make money by offering a paid version of their service for private use.
The focus on the young web-sophisticated audience is clear through the terminology used on the site: “tasty data goodies”, “bling”, “shout out” and so forth.  The usual set of social networking features (comments, tags, ratings) are offered on the data and chart pages.

Many Eyes

Many Eyes is the product of a team  at IBM Research in Cambridge, MA, headed by well-known data visualization researchers Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas.  Like Swivel, users upload data manually.  Many Eyes reports over 11,000 contributions, growing at about 40 per day.
Many Eyes visualizations are produced manually, not automatically.  The visualizations are interactive Java applets, and include several sophisticated options (scatterplots, bubble charts, treemaps, tag clouds) beyond the basic lines/bars/pies.
The ability to embed Many Eyes applets in outside pages was implemented recently, though the capability is not as satisfactory as Swivel’s image embed.
Compared to Swivel’s youth-friendly approach, Many Eyes aims for a more polished and professional look. Many Eyes supports similar social-networking features, with the welcome inclusion of RSS feeds for comments, though tagging is strangely absent.
Slow Progress
Swivel and Many Eyes are off to a good start.  They provide a great taste of what can be achieved by providing accessible online visualization tools to the online public.  But this is obviously a challenging area; neither of these services has added significant new functionality in the last year.  I’m looking forward to seeing great things over the next 12 months.
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