July 23, 2013

Mobile Visualization

One of my favourite podcasts is Data Stories. Who'd have thought a purely audio presentation of a visual subject would work? But it does, mostly due to its two charming hosts: Moritz Stefaner and Enrico Bertini, and the expert guests they interview.

The guest on episode #25 was Dominikus Baur, whose speciality is delivering visualizations on mobile, touch-based devices. Dominikus is part of the team that created Touchwave, an iOS toolkit for multi-touch interaction with stacked charts.

The podcast is well worth listening to if you're interested in developing visualizations for mobile devices. The guys discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by mobile platforms.

Small screens and limited processing power are obvious challenges. The latter motivated the choice of a native iOS implemention of Touchwave rather than a platform-neutral implementation based on HTML5/Javascript.

Touch-based user interfaces, especially, multi-touch represent an opportunity for new and interesting ways of interacting with visualizations, compared with the traditional keyboard and pointer interfaces used with desktop and notebook PCs.

Dominikus mentioned the support for mobile devices provided by Tableau. I know that other visualization products, including Spotfire, Panopticon, QlikView and Dundas, support deployment of visualization on mobile devices. How well these implementations work I can't say as I've not used them (please leave a comment if you have some experience).

My own work with D3.js performs poorly on mobile devices. I developed these visualizations with desktop PC users in mind (large screens, pointer interfaces) They won't even load on my Android phone. On my Android tablet they'll load but performance is sluggish and interaction is awkward. In time, I expect the former problem will be resolved as the performance of mobile processors improves. However, the interaction problems will remain.

There is a distinct lag between the adoption of mobile devices and the development of data visualization interfaces that work effectively on them. There is a clear need for need new techniques, such as those developed by Dominikus and his colleagues, if we're to provide interactive visualizations that work effectively on mobile devices.