Q&A with Jan Willem Tulp

Q&A with Jan Willem Tulp

Welcome to our second iteration of the Visualizing Q&A, where we're introducing you to some of the designers behind the work you see at Visualizing.org. Got questions for them? Add your comments below!

This week, we're happy to feature Jan Willem Tulp. One of our most active Visualizing.org community members, Jan has participated in several Data Visualization Challenges, consistently landing in the top tier of competitors. We recently caught up with Jan at his homebase in Den Haag, the Netherlands, where he gave us the rundown on exciting new programming technologies, open data sets, and prospects for real-time visualizations.

A sample of Jan's work:

V: How and when did you get started in data visualization?

JT: I have a BSc. in interaction design, and I have been fascinated by technology and design for a long time. In my career I'd been looking for a combination of the two, but most of the time the emphasis was still on the technical part. Then, about a year ago — I don't remember what the exact trigger was — it clicked for me: data visualization was THE combination I'd been looking for all the time! So I started reading lots and lots of books, attending events, watching complete online lectures on visualization, and most importantly, I started creating visualizations myself. So I really dove into it, and I'm still diving.

V: Tell us about a data viz project you’re especially proud of

JT: I think that will be my World Economic Forum (WEF) visualization. It was my first real Protovis project, and I think it turned out really well. It was great getting the data in shape, and trying out various things. When I started with it, it didn't look anything like the final result: I started with a force-directed network layout, and tried to find some clusters or communities. But that didn't work out, so I had to come up with something else. Something I notice over and over when creating a visualization is that you really get great ideas once you see the data visualized in front of you. You could design things on paper or in your head, but I really like making something visual as quickly as possible, and see 'what's in there'. Eventually I decided to show the links between the WEF councils as lines between two arcs. The project turned out great: I got an honorable mention, I got tremendous feedback, and I still get a few hundred visitors on my website for this visualization only! So yes, that was a great start!

V: What’s the most exciting development that’s happened in the field in the past year?

JT: In general the HTML5 canvas popularity, and specifically Protovis. Protovis is really a great framework for creating visualizations. It is not a graph library, but a Domain Specific Language in Javascript to create visualizations. It is really easy to get started, you only need a few lines of code to get something working, but the great thing is that it doesn't actually limit your creativity. You're not limited to a fixed set of graphs, but you can use the framework to create your own visualizations. And that is fantastic! (By the way: the follow-up of Protovis is called D3 which is even more powerful than Protovis. Really, check it out!)

V: Where do you see data visualization heading in the next couple of years?

JT: The web. There is more and more browser support, more and more frameworks are using HTML. And Apple's support for HTML5, including smart phones and tablets, will push the HTML5 adoption. That's great — and not just HTML5 canvas, but also WebGL for instance and hardware acceleration of browser graphics will really push towards a greater HTML5 adoption.

Other trends I see related to data visualization are "big data": huge amounts of data that need to be analyzed and understood. Visualization could and will play an important role here. Another one: open data. More and more governments and organizations are opening up their data and releasing it to the public. This will lead to great opportunities for application development and data visualization. A final trend I see is realtime data, and for visualization this may also be really interesting. Although it's on my to-do list, I haven't really tried visualizing realtime data yet.

V: One visualization or data set you’ve always wanted to tackle but haven’t yet had the time?

JT: Realtime data might really be interesting. Something I've been thinking about for some time now is to visualize MIDI data from my digital piano. And since modern browsers now support WebSockets, I might do some realtime streaming MIDI visualization on the web. That, to me, sounds like an interesting concept. Also, I am really looking forward to seeing the Dutch government opening up (more) data. I am very jealous of people in the US, UK, Australia with much more open data sets available, so that might be something as well.

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