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Mike Riley

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Beautiful Visualization Book Review

July 10, 2010

With the computing world increasingly amassing huge data warehouses, quickly ascertaining the numbers collected would be a considerable undertaking without ways to visualize the associations such data collections represent. There is a subtle art behind visualization that makes this representational task successful. Does O'Reilly's latest book in their "Beautiful" series help readers understand and implement this craft in their own visualization projects? Read on to find out.Beautiful Visualization is a collection of 20 essays written by contributors ranging from electrical engineers and tech bloggers to professors and O'Reilly staffers. Few of the 29 names were ones I had recognized prior to reading the book, though their backgrounds for the most part well suit the subjects upon which they have written.

The book is mostly about ideas, and only a few instances share actual code. One of these written by Jer Thorp on using the NYTimes article search API leverages the Processing language that I wrote about in my last book review. Others mostly center on the discussion of how to best formulate a visualization strategy depending on the type of data being aggregated and interpreted, though there are a few bits of code peppered throughout. Such examples range from snippets in Java and the R language to Python with GraphViz to Map/Reduce and Hadoop. Subjects range from visualizing subway maps and air traffic flight patterns to chaotic social networks and uncovering "nonintuitive structures in curated databases arising from local activity by the curators and the heterogeneity of the source data." In other words, determining the best way to visually interpret data from various sources.

Several of the pasages reference O'Reilly's year-old companion book, Beautiful Data, and for good reason. Indeed, these two books form a complimentary bond of effective data organization and display. Perhaps in a future incarnation, these two themes can be combined into a single book that follows the entire lifecycle of data input and visualization output.

On the negative side, the book is rather expensive given its sub-500 page count. Part of the cost is understandable given the book's high quality paper and 4-color diagrams and illustrations throughout. The other more noble aspect is that all author royalties from the book are being donated to the non-profit organization, Architecture for Humanity, making the cover price partly responsible for a charitable cause.

Overall, I did enjoy reading the book and while some of the ideas were fresh and unique, others were business-book obvious (especially for anyone who has done any work related to charting data from databases). I also had hoped to see a couple more examples of high performance computing visualization techniques particularly in the area of physics and engineering. Finally, it would have been helpful to offer an appendix reviewing various open source visualization libraries worth exploring. Perhaps O'Reilly's next book on the topic will delve more deeply into the code behind the commentary.

Title: Beautiful Visualization: Looking a Data Through the Eyes of Experts Edited By: Julie Steele and Noah Ilinsky Publisher: O'Reilly Media ISBN: 978-1-449-37986-5 Pages: 416 Price: $59.99 US

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