Visual Interfaces for Databases

   Jock Mackinlay Chris Stolte,
Tableau Software,

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design

Although visual interfaces and databases are two of the success stories of the computer revolution, their synergy to date has been modest, probably because visual interfaces have focused on human capabilities while databases have focused on efficient query processing. The success of visual interfaces started with the GUI (Graphical User Interface), which supplanted the command line interface by exploiting the power of the human visual motor system. Given advances in graphics hardware in the mid 1980s, research started on Visualization, the use of interactive, visual representations of data to amplify cognition. We will briefly describe Mackinlay’s dissertation, which formalized Jacques Bertin’s design theory, adding psychophysical data, resulting in a system that could automatically design graphical presentations.

The 1990s were a fertile time for Visualization research, culminating in a book co-authored by Mackinlay that included a formal reference model for describing visualization systems. However, this research had little impact on databases even though queries are essentially a command line interaction. Rather, the success story of databases started with the invention of relational databases that supported efficient transactions. The 1980s saw a huge effort to rework our institutions to use computers to manage our vital data ranging from our birth statistics to the legacy that we leave our children. In the 1990s we developed multi-dimensional databases to create data warehouses for the efficient analysis of this data. However, analysis and exploration place significant demands on the interfaces to these databases, which might be addressed with visual interfaces for databases. Because of the size of the data sets, dense graphical representations are more effective for exploration than spreadsheets and charts. Furthermore, because of the exploratory nature of the analysis, it must be possible for the analysts to change visualizations rapidly as they pursue a cycle involving first hypothesis and then experimentation.

In this talk we describe an interface for exploring large multi-dimensional databases that extends the well-known Pivot Table interface. The novel features include an interface for constructing visual specifications of table-based graphical displays and the ability to generate a precise set of relational queries from the visual specifications. The visual specifications can be rapidly and incrementally developed, giving the analyst visual feedback as they construct complex queries and visualizations.

Jock Mackinlay received his PhD in computer science from Stanford University, where he pioneered the automatic design of graphical presentations of relational information. He joined Xerox PARC in 1986, where he collaborated with the User Interface Research Group to develop many novel applications of computer graphics for information access and to coin the term "Information Visualization". Much of the fruits of this research can be found in his book, Readings in Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think (Morgan Kauffman, written and edited with Stuart K. Card and Ben Shneiderman). He holds numerous patents in user interfaces and is a member of the editorial board of IEEE Computer Graphics & Applications. In 2004, he joined Tableau Software as Director of Visual Analysis.

Chris Stolte is a co-founder of Tableau Software and Vice President of Engineering. Chris has been researching the visual analysis and exploration of databases for the last eight years and his research has resulted in ten research publications and two large-scale visualization systems. Chris was also CTO and co-founder of BeeLine Systems, a visualization software company that developed a revolutionary map rendering system. BeeLine was purchased by Vicinity Corporation (NASDAQ: VCNT), and its products are currently used to generate over a million maps a day. Chris is a co-inventor on five software patents related to information visualization. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford University, and a B.S. in Computer Science from Simon Fraser University.

View this talk on line at CS547 on Stanford OnLine

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