Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg lead Google's "Big Picture" visualization research group in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Before joining Google, the two founded Flowing Media, Inc., a visualization studio focused on media and consumer-oriented projects. Prior to Flowing Media, they led IBM’s Visual Communication Lab, where they created the ground-breaking public visualization platform Many Eyes. The two became a team in 2003 when they decided to visualize Wikipedia, leading to the "history flow" project that revealed the self-healing nature of the online encyclopedia.
Viégas is known for her pioneering work on depicting chat histories and email. Wattenberg’s visualizations of the stock market and baby names are considered Internet classics. Viégas and Wattenberg are also known for their visualization-based artwork, which has been exhibited in venues such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, London Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
We're committed to a rigorous understanding of visualization, informed by academic research. (Fernanda has a Ph.D. from the MIT Media Lab; Martin's Ph.D. is in mathematics, from U.C. Berkeley.) The scientific side of our work includes both design of new visualization techniques and the study of how they are used in practice. The two of us have published more than 30 academic papers; if you are interested in learning more, read our publication list.
Our work explores the joy of revelation: the special electricity of seeing a city from the air, of hearing a secret, of watching a lover undress.
Our medium is data visualization, a technology developed by computer scientists to extract insights from raw numbers. This technique is ideal for investigating a world represented by digital traces, where truth is hidden in masses of information. The resulting studies take the form of web sites, prints, and videos.
At the same time, our artwork complicates and subverts a tool that is largely used by the business and military elite. Unlike these traditional uses, we believe visualization to be an expressive medium that invites emotion. We aim our tools at “data sets” that range from hip hop songs to Walt Whitman's poetry, from arguments on Wikipedia to expressions of carnal desire. We strive to expand the practical craft of visualization beyond function to create objects of social engagement, pleasure and revelation.
Our process is driven by curiosity and a sense of adventure. Data is the starting point, followed by incessant questioning, with a touch of wonderment and laughter. Eventually we start to ask questions that can't be answered by direct observation. At that point we begin to work in software code, creating a series of digital instruments—telescopes and microscopes of the abstract world—that reveal more than our own eyes can see.
As proponents of expressive visualization, we exploit the power of color and complexity to reveal arresting, unintuitive patterns. Parallel to depth of information, clarity and interactivity are of great concern to us. We strive to build intelligible visualizations that engage viewers at a formal level while allowing them to hold a dialogue with the underlying data. It is in this dialogue, we hope, that the brightest sparks of revelation will be found.
We come to visualization from separate paths: Fernanda via design, Martin via mathematics. After admiring each other's style from afar, we joined forces in 2003—and discovered the thrill of thinking and creating as a team. Together, we set off to explore the possibilities of visualization as a medium; it has become our tool for asking scientific, social, and artistic questions. Today the two of us lead Google's "Big Picture" visualization research group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And in our artistic work, visualization is used to excite and provoke.