Innovation often comes down to the ability to see known information in new and different ways.
I've written a couple of recent posts on the "new and different" aspect, which might involve tapping customers or others outside a company for ideas or encouraging employees to operate outside the usual business processes.
But a New York Times item on Many Eyes, an experimental Web site created by IBM researchers, got me thinking about the "seeing" aspect and the growing popularity of visualization technologies. I wrote about this back in November, mentioning Many Eyes. The site combines "seeing" and "new and different" by providing sophisticated tools that folks can use to create visual displays of any data they want to upload. Then they can discuss the data with other users, some of whom might create their own displays with the same data.
The purpose of Many Eyes is to "bring visualization to a whole new audience," says researcher Martin Wattenberg. On that score, the site is a definite success. But the collaborative element is what seems to really capture users. Says Pat Hanrahan, a professor of computer science at Stanford, whose research includes scientific visualization:
When analyzing information, no single person knows it all. When you have a group look at data, you protect against bias. You get more perspectives, and this can lead to more reliable decisions.
The conversation about the data is as important as the flow of data from the database.
The article includes an example of new patterns emerging in data when it was arranged in different ways. To illustrate deaths resulting from human violence in the 20th century, one user presented a bubble graph in which the size of the circles represented the number of casualties tied to events such as wars. After discussion on the site about population growth during the 20th century, the user created two new time-based visualizations of the data, one a line graph and the other a stack graph, that factored in the growing population. The new visualizations revealed a decline in violent deaths in the latter decades of the century.
Since my November post, it sounds like the site has added lots of snazzy new tools. One mentioned in the article, an interleaved tag cloud, lets users compare side by side the relative frequencies of words in two passages of text. So, for instance, you could compare how many times President Bush said "terrorists" in his State of the Union addresses from 2002 and 2003.