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Information Visualisation, what is it all about?
by Juan C. DĂĽrsteler [message nş 100]

This makes number 100 of InfoVis.net E-zine. A good point to stop and reflect on what it is, how to define it and what the scope is of the concept underlying Information Visualisation.

That of 100 messages is a psychological barrier that has made me think that we have spoken here about many things but maybe we haven’t yet defined precisely what Information Visualization is all about. For this reason I think that it’s worth stopping for a while to think about the definition of the same.

First of all it has to be said the many of the definitions of the term bind it to visual function and use of the computer. We believe that this is not so.

In order to understand better the meaning of the term, we should know on one hand what visualisation is and what information is on the other. We will follow the definitions of Infovis.net’s glossary, since it has been the result of long hours of navigation through encyclopaedias, Internet glossaries, scientific papers and, certainly, some doses of imagination on the part of the author.

In the letter V section we find “Visualisation”: Formation in the mind of the image of an abstract concept. The Collins English Dictionary substitutes “abstract concept” for “ something incapable of being viewed or not at that moment visible”.

So, in order to visualise something there’s no need to use vision. Moreover, being a mental phenomenon, vision doesn’t intervene at that moment, although it could have been involved in the formation of the symbols and elements that end up composing the mental image.

Information Visualisation plays an important role in the process of transforming information into knowledge.  

An image is, in philosophy, the consciousness of an absent or inexistent object. In psychology it is the representation built without intervention of the corresponding sensorial stimuli. 

In the end, the image and hence the visualisation, is a mental construction that goes beyond sensorial perception. This mental construction, is close to knowledge, the intellectual apprehension of things. To understand means to surround, to include something, to interiorise it.

And, what about information?. For some dictionaries it’s the “knowledge acquired through study or experience”. For others it is “the communication or acquiring of knowledge”. Information resides in the elaboration of data, the raw signals that can be gathered about objects or phenomena, in order to build knowledge.

So I’ve been bold enough to define Information Visualisation as the “Process of knowledge internalisation by the perception of information” or, if you want, by means of elaborating the data. 

Notice that during all this discourse we haven’t mentioned at all the vision or any other perceptual channel in particular. So, for Information Visualisation any sense is valid, not only vision, although we must recognise that it’s the sense with the biggest bandwidth, i.e. the one that is capable of bringing in more data per time unit.

At the same time, the elaboration of data in the form of information, although enormously facilitated by the computer, does not require it at all. Data has been transformed into information during the whole History of humanity. For this very reason, the computer doesn’t take part in this definition, either.

In issue number_94 “Knowledge and Information Architecture” we spoke about the process that begins with data, follows with its elaboration in the form of information in order to constitute knowledge and to finally extract from this, wisdom. There we said that unlike data and information that can be easily transferred, knowledge and, even more so ,wisdom require the construction of a body of experiences and intuition that can’t be transferred.

Information Visualisation, as the set-up of a mental image from information distilled from data and from the finding of the underlying patterns in information, strongly influences the formation of knowledge.

In this context both information architecture and information design can be considered two fundamental elements in the process of information visualisation, oriented to producing the mental image, the spark that ignites the fire of knowledge.

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