Working paper

Surveying the world of visualization

30 Jul 2011

This paper provides an overview and survey of the rapidly growing field of 'visualization'.

The great strides in computing, graphics and information technology, and the widespread use of the web and communications technologies have rapidly changed the landscape for conveying and analyzing data and other information. From a technological perspective, the possibilities for identifying ways to generate and project images seem boundless. From a user perspective, individuals are consuming and absorbing information in far more diverse ways, and, regardless of personal cognitive styles, they are more familiar with hypermedia technology and new ways to convey visual information. Indeed, the field of ‘visualization’ has been taking shape, with research institutes, university courses, web sites, and practitioner and scholarly conferences, and textbooks proliferating, with great enthusiasm and considerable momentum.

The practice of visualization, though of great interest to many people, can mean very different things and the field has many streams, even though scholars and practitioners often look back to similar sources of inspiration in mapping, graphing, and more. Some of these visualization streams overlap, but there are distinct areas flowing from inputs, visualization technologies, goals, and even proximate target audiences. Some areas of visualization streams rely heavily on securing, transforming and projecting data, while others are focused more on visual means for facilitating analysis or dialogue without necessarily relying on data.

The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview and survey of the rapidly growing field of ‘visualization’ as background for the HC Coombs Policy Forum project Grappling with Complex Policy Challenges: Exploring the Potential of Visualization Technologies for Analysis, Advising and Engagement and as a complement to the related discussion paper. The discussion paper is best understood as considering the ‘demand-side’ possibilities and challenges for selecting and working with different visualization technologies, while this paper focuses on the ‘supply-side’ seeking to give a sense of the evolution, diversity, and key issues of this field. Having a broad sense of the visualization landscape should assist project participants from the Australian Government with exchanging their department and agency experiences with different visualization technologies.

This paper is organized as follows. The first part provides a brief overview of visualization, the key antecedents, and its many areas of practice. The next three sections delve into each of the primary areas of information visualization and data analytics; graphic and information display; and visual approaches in support of dialogue and strategy along with the related approaches of systems thinking, simulation, and scenarios – identifying key themes, concepts, contributors, and resources. The fifth section stands back to identify key issues that arise from all of the streams of visualization research and practice, and points to issues for public sector executives and policy analysts undertaking analysis, advising and engagement on complex policy issues.

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