Monday, November 28, 2011

Reaction: Tag Clouds and the Case for Vernacular Visualization

This article separates itself into two separate points: exploring and expanding on the world of tag/word clouds and stating a case for how the success of tag clouds provides evidence for why so-called "vernacular visualizations" should not be over looked.

The paper begins with an examination of how tag clouds have been around since before computers from Paris landmarks to the web and finally landing as a mainstream tool used in many types of media.  The mainstream nature of tag clouds was brought to light by Flickr when it tried to provide a visualization for image tags.  The heart of tag clouds are to summarize textual data by making words that appear important standout from the rest.  The determination of importance can be as simple as frequency or are as complex meshing issues in a Presidential speech with concerns of the American public.  IBM brought out the two-word phrase when prior tag clouds had only used one word entities.  Further, tag clouds can withdraw and show beneath the surface data or condense large data sets to isolate importance.  Patterns can be detected and are routinely used for such in political speeches.  However, tag clouds are not perfect.  Long words can receive undue emphasis, large tag clouds make it harder to find specific words, font size differences can be difficult for humans to detect the differences in and lose some of the relative sizing that is intending to show intensity.  Lastly, if the ordering is simply alphabetical, which most are, there is no sense of relationship.  For example, east and west are similar in concept but would be placed far apart.

The other side of the paper brings forth this notion of a vernacular visualization - one not brought about by academia but from use in practice.  By showing the success of tag clouds, the author intends to show that not all visualizations necessarily need to come from academia.  However, the research community should still vet and explore vernacular visualizations to provide the scientific foundations.  I tend to agree with this approach and often find that everyday experiences may bring ideas to light that rigorous science would not otherwise.  However, research should still be performed after the fact in order to confirm findings in a rigorous manner.