About a month ago, the unexpected news hit the Tweetsphere that Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg, two of the most talented data visualization practitioners and researchers, were leaving IBM Visual Communication Lab to found a new data visualization venture, Flowing Media.
Martin started his fame as the person behind the now famous Baby Name Voyager. His unique ability to merge aesthetics with clarity still stands out and is still an example for many. Fernanda
rised rose up through the academic world as a talented PhD student at the Sociable Media Group, founded by another visualization pioneer, Judith Donath. Her works like History Flow and Flesh Map show a special flair to match interesting data with visually compelling representations. Just a week ago, she was even featured as one of the most influential women in technology. Together, Martin and Fernanda worked at the IBM Visual Communication Lab, where they founded the Many Eyes service, one of the very first initiatives to democratize the visualization of information for the masses. The role and importance of "social visualization" was discovered, pushing further the idea of visualization as a medium. This groundbraking work, together with several other projects, became the foundation of several high-quality academic publications, which have become obligatory reading for any academic in the field of visualization.
Of course, I was very curious to know the reasons behind the sudden and unexpected change from one of the most innovative and data-hungry corporations in the world, to the relatively risky endeavor of starting an independent firm. Even when I have the feeling the truth behind this remarkable move will (understandably) never be communicated in public any time soon, the interview makes an interesting read. Why the name Flowing Media? What is the role of aesthetics in their work? Are they hiring? Read it below.
Why did you
leave IBM, and start Flowing Media?
We believe that visualization is ready to come of age as a communication medium, and we're excited to focus full-time on consumer and mass-audience visualizations.
We see a huge range of applications for this flavor of visualization. A non-profit group might want to draw widespread attention to data on the environment. A news organization might want a new set of tools for its reporters. A fashion house might even see the chance to make a striking statement.
Flowing Media offers strategy, design, and development services. We can help figure out what kind of visualization is right for a particular purpose, and then invent and design the technology to bring data to life.
Will you keep collaborating with the IBM Visual Communication Lab?
That's the plan. We're looking forward to continuing to work with our amazing former colleagues. Right now we're working on making a collaborative research project happen.
A lot of your work is also published in peer-reviewed scientific papers at reputable conferences like Infovis and CHI. Will your redirection towards a client-dependent and commercial incentive still enable you to continue this (time-consuming and painstaking) scientific practice?
We'll probably be less active in the conference circuit in the coming year. Long-term, however, we'd love to continue contributing to the scientific community. It's a community we enjoy and learn from, and it's an important forum for our work.
The social visualization field is slowly but surely getting crowded. Each month, a new start-up shows up that tries to allow the sharing and commenting of data depictions. Do you think there is a sufficiently large commercial market for this field that can sustain a critical mass of users?
We're just starting to scrape the surface of what's possible in "social visualization." The field is in its infancy and we have a lot to learn about how users collectively interact with data and visualizations. With so many players we can try different paths to find the best model. In this sense, yes, there will always be a critical mass of users ready to try the next tool.
The word "Flow" is becoming increasingly popular in visualization, think of the FlowingData blog, the Data Flow books, and so on. Are there any particular reasons why you chose the name "Flowing Media" for your new venture?
Choosing a company name is not something to be taken lightly--especially in these URL-crowded days. "Flow" can mean anything from creative flow to a rushing current of ever-changing data. "Media" reflects our view that visualization is ready to be a mass medium.
The designerly visualization industry, or should we say visualization-for-the-masses, has already quite some competitors, independent firms as well as individual designers. In what will Flowing Media be different?
We're excited to add our own style and approach to this mélange of creative minds. We'll draw on our scientific background and our artistic curiosity to craft new techniques and visualize data that others may not have explored. But really the best way to answer this question is through our work: so wait and see!
In my opinion, your work is particular unique as you seem to easily switch between data art (e.g. the compelling works that appear on the hint.fm blog) and classic data visualization (e.g. Many Eyes). However, some people recently strongly argued for a strict separation of art and science in visualization. As a designer who seemingly feels home in both worlds, what is your opinion about this apparently dangerous divide in our field?
The only divide that matters is between good work and bad. Contextualized questions like, "Does technique X help biologists investigate gene regulation?" or "Would installation Y be an inspirational addition to our museum exhibit on generative art?" are necessary and useful. More general debates about the role of art versus science are fun, but can also be distracting and block the flow of ideas.
In any case, arguing about labels isn't effective because language has a life of its own. For instance, "social network" once meant a specific sociological model, but for most people today it means Facebook or MySpace. It may annoy sociologists, but that's just how the language evolved. Now the word "visualization" is starting to become part of the popular lexicon. Who can say what it will mean in ten years?
Are you hiring people? If not now, if you ever look for people, what in particular should those people be like?
We aren't currently hiring but, thinking ahead, our dream person would be able to think at a creative level and have down-to-earth technical ability. We'd also look for a good collaborator, someone who teaches us a lot and is fun to work with.