Archive for September, 2008


Sad but true

Jon Peltier discusses the purpose of charting, with a bad pie chart as the exhibit on trial.

For an excellent explanation of why pie charts are almost universally a poor choice of visualization see Stephen Few’s Save the Pies for Dessert (PDF).

I don’t quite agree with Jon’s contention that charts are often used to make presenters look smart, conceal the facts, accentuate the positive and so on. We use the tools at hand, and we use them as quickly as possible. When the tool at hand for data visualization is Excel, and the default settings are poor, and there’s no quick & easy access to advice, then the end product is bound to be unsatisfactory — and the user might never realize that.

The solution is better tools, made pervasively available. When every analyst and presenter can reach out and grasp a superior tool for the job of information visualization — no learning curve, excellent default presentation, useful advice when needed — then we will see better analysis and better decisions.


…and security is

Guys, this is just inexcusable. Storing passwords unencrypted? No way to change your password? Have you any idea what you’re doing?


More on

The icharts service went live to the public earlier this week, so there’s now an opportunity to investigate the site’s capabilities, and to respond to Achim’s comment on my previous post.

I examined a few of the charts currently on the site. My impressions are not good:

  • You can’t view the data behind a public chart without registering, logging in, and editing the chart in your account. There is no data download option.
  • Visualization quality is poor: Axis labels and legend labels can be almost illegible, and the default color selections are poor.
  • The slider widget which appears on all bar and line charts adds no value, does not support panning, and is inappropriately applied to categorical data.
  • The image thumbnails generated for browse and search results are ugly and serve no useful purpose.

Responding to Achim’s comment: I don’t see source attribution or links on any of the public charts. As I mentioned above, you can’t get easily to the data. On collaboration, there may be some capability here, I just can’t find it.

In summary: iCharts is a poor imitation of Swivel, using Flash instead of images. Swivel’s visualization quality is far from perfect, but it’s substantially superior to iCharts.

Many Eyes remains the undisputed champion of high-quality public data visualization on the web (though I believe they’ve made an unwise choice of Java applets for rendering). For some relevant commentary, see Stephen Few’s past blog postings on Swivel and Many Eyes.

08 – “YouTube for Charts”

A new data visualization service launched at last week’s TechCrunch50 conference in San Francisco. are billing themselves as “YouTube for Charts” (echoes of the “YouTube for Data” tag used by Swivel at their launch in December 2006).

iCharts is offering a service for constructing a Flash chart that can be embedded in any web page (as YouTube does for videos). From the demo, there will apparently be a gallery of visualization choices.

Business model is yet to be determined. Advertising was suggested, but in my opinion that seems unlikely to work (CrunchBase claims 16 employees, a steep payroll to cover with online ads). On the TechCrunch50 panel, Mark Cuban proclaimed that a corporate licensing model is the obvious approach; I agree that there’s more potential there to achieve the rate of return expected for a VC-funded company.

The key artifact that iCharts tracks is the chart. Data contributions cannot be tracked separately from visualizations, and there’s no way to build new visualizations from existing datasets. Data provenance is not captured in the system. Collaborative and social features are minimal.

At this point I see many parallels with Swivel’s launch almost two years ago. Investor-funded company; high-visibility public launch; substantial payroll expense for a zero-revenue firm; unclear business model. At first blush the iCharts product is newer and shinier than Swivel’s, but the shift from static images to Flash alone is not sufficient to drive dramatic user adoption. It will be interesting to watch over the next year to see if iCharts can break out of the pack and drive some progress in data visualization on the web.