Fernanda Viégas & Martin Wattenberg on Democratizing Information
June 30th, 2010

Years ago, I told someone I wanted to make rhythms out of emails, and that someone had the astuteness to point me to the work of Fernanda Viégas. I snooped around and was amazed at what I found. Fernanda was doing fascinating work in information visualization, specifically in visualization of online communication and relationships – including email – and to top it off, she’s Brazilian, a nationality and culture I have a weakness for (sou Brasileira do coração, gente). And this was before she’d co-created IBM’s Many Eyes platform enabling lay users to create, edit, share, and discuss information visualizations, and become the renown info visualization pioneer she’s known as today. So when I spotted her name on the list of speakers for the recent Personal Democracy Forum in NYC, I used my Portuguese skills to court her for an interview. Lucky for me, not only did she accept, but when it came time for our interview, her Many Eyes co-creator, general partner in crime, and info viz pioneer in his own right Martin Wattenberg was also available and joined the conversation. I.e. I got to hang with info viz dynamic duo Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg. Following are some tidbits from our conversation.

Given that the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) is dedicated to exploring the implications of technology on politics and government, I first ask Fernanda and Martin about their take on this question, and more specifically, the future of politics and government as information visualization tools are increasingly democratized and used. Martin responds that government has much more data about people than people do, and that decades from now, it still will. He confesses to somewhat of an Orwellian, Panopticon-esque vision of the future, in which government increasingly concentrates power and citizens are increasingly “on the record,” less able to “start a fresh life on the frontier.” Although Fernanda understands his fears, she mitigates them by bringing things back to their collaborative work. “Government will have more data about us, but so will we.” The question therefore becomes whether government and citizens will take equal strides forward, without whatsoever disrupting the balance of knowledge-as-power between them (or tipping it further towards government), or whether citizens will wield their newfound information access and literacy in a way that democratizes their relationship with government (can’t help but make a plug for Howard’s next book right here, stay tuned). I like to think that Fernanda and Martin’s dedication to Many Eyes is a manifestation of their faith in the latter scenario.

Their chapter in Open Government certainly suggests as much, i.e. that information literacy is an integral component of ‘open government,’ the movement to make government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. So I ask how Fernanda and Martin envision citizens learning information literacy – in school, at home, and/or elsewhere. With regards to schools, they acknowledge schools’ growing effort to teach internet safety, which includes an element of information literacy. Regarding the home, they note that as citizens become information producers and learn firsthand about the process of information production, they’ll become more discerning information consumers. When Martin was young, he thought “the newspaper was the word of God”; nowadays, by publishing their own blogs, youth become more critical of other published information. Fernanda adds that “learning by doing has always been one of the biggest deals about Many Eyes,” and that interestingly – and meaningfully – the reaction to Many Eyes has been divisive. “What are you giving the people the tools to do?!,” she asks, imitating this reaction. What Fernanda and Martin are doing is giving people the tools to visualize information, and Fernanda sees this democratization of info viz tools is integral to cultivating information literacy.

Curious about ‘the people’ are doing with these tools, I inquire about the most surprising uses of Many Eyes. Fernanda’s quick to respond with something surprising indeed: Bible statistics. Oft-visualized data include names in the Bible and visualizations of the Bible’s social networks. But these religious users “don’t want to learn something new, they just want to support deeply held beliefs.” Meanwhile, Fernanda continues, more tech-minded users look at the religious visualizations and ask, “What’s the point?” For them, as for Fernanda and Martin, Many Eyes in particular and info viz in general are about discovering unknown patterns, rather than proving the already-held beliefs. As for desired users of Many Eyes, Fernanda and Martin would Love to see more journalists using the platform (ahoy, Smart Mobs bloggers!). Says Martin, “Having the data available is the first step, but we must tell stories with it…and journalists are fulltime storytellers.”

I end with a more personal question about how Fernanda and Martin’s collaborative work with information visualization has implicated their interpersonal relationship, and whether they feel they know each other in a way distinct from their other perhaps more verbal-based relationships. They look at each and laugh as if they know exactly what each other are thinking, effectively performing their answer to my question. What they were both thinking about was story of how they met, which Fernanda tells. While a student at the MIT Media Lab, her lab mate returned from a conference with its proceedings, which Fernada had been eager to browse through. When she did, however, she found most of the papers unimpressive except for one, namely that of a fellow named Martin Wattenberg about repetitions in songs. Meanwhile, not far away, Martin was working at IBM on visualizing communication, and finding that most of the literature on the topic simply “felt wrong.” That was, until he happened upon the work of a woman named Fernanda Viégas, which was “beautiful, simple, and getting it right.” May I remind you that this was totally happening at the same time. They both put getting in touch with each other on their lists of things to do, but it was Martin who first reached out to Fernanda via email. And of course, when she saw the email from him in her inbox, she was incredulous. Not only had they discovered each others’ work simultaneously, but had found and felt affinity for each other through each others’ visualizations. My mind wanders momentarily to the possibility of visualizing the evolution of Fernanda and Martin’s relationship and online communication. Fernanda ended up doing an internship with Martin at IBM on visualizing Wikipedia, and eventually staying there on the condition that he stay too. “We know each others’ rhythms, we work well together, our brainstorms feel productive,” Fernanda observes. Their conversations can range from the nitty-gritty details of font size and color for a particular visualization to the abstract questions of what it means to visualize communication and democratize visualization. My mind again wanders to the applicability of info viz for matchmaking and couples’ therapy, and this time, I vocalize it. Fernanda and Martin concede that information visualizations are excellent bases for conversation, and therefore useful for purposes of education, conflict resolution, and yes, potentially couples therapy. It makes perfect sense to get personal here – both about how info viz has affected Fernanda and Martin’s relationship, and in terms of more personal applications of info viz’s – given that Fernanda’s initial attraction to information visualization was entirely personal. Information visualization “has usually been thought of as a scientific tool rather than a personal one,” but as exemplified by the advent of self-tracking, “people are mesmerized by data about themselves.”

This year, Fernanda and Martin left IBM together to start their own info viz consulting company, Flowing Media. (Apparently, Fernanda’s condition for staying at IBM became mutual.) And since Fernanda é Brasileira and Martin is learning Portuguese, lemme conclude by saying: obrigada pelo bate-papo! E boa sorte con Media Flutuante.

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