Visual Overviews for Cultural Heritage: Interactive Exploration for Scholars in the Humanities, Arts, and Beyond

A focus on designing technologies that allow the “visualization of things not visible” has been at the center of Ben Shneiderman’s work over the past two decades. He advocates the discovery of temporal patterns, relationships and clusters via an empowering user experience which enables discovery at a customizable pace and depth.

Shneiderman makes a clear distinction between high-resolution presentation (ala Edward Tufte) and discovery, which he defines as “the dynamics of interaction.” Noting that different patterns will be interesting to different people, he suggests that the capacity to quickly test out a viewpoint, to ask a large number of questions in a short amount of time…is an “enriching gift.”

Shneiderman cites several different projects which utilize various methodologies of user exploration and empowerment, principles applicable to the scientific and technical world, as well as the humanities and arts. The best known of these is Spotfire, a commercial application of visual data mining and information visualization. (User control – via dynamic query sliders, for example – directs the rapid updating of a display containing color- and size-coded points.)

He describes other methodologies – including treemaps (space-constrained visualizations of hierarchical structures), TimeSearcher (a visual analysis tool for time series data), FeatureLens (interactive visualization of text patterns) and Social Action (for social network data, now incorporated into NodeXL) – as capable of giving "answers to questions you didn't know you had."

Questions from the audience address the challenges of visualizing uncertainty and the notion of a “user” as a participant whose contributions and engagement actually reshape the very conditions of the system. Shneiderman emphasizes a desire to not only empower users but to alert them to potential hazards of interpretation and make them more cautious users, readers and/or participants.

Additionally, Shneiderman encourages an information visualization approach through which selection strategies allow “treasures to rise to the surface” from vast databases. Noting ongoing constraints of time and budget, he emphasizes the processes of categorization and prioritization, and supports courage of ownership for decisions made.