A Q&A with Ben Fry, Data Visualist Extraordinaire

Last week, Ben Fry, whom I've talked about here before, agreed to answer a few questions by e-mail for what’s become something of a Q&A series here at Canary in the Data Mine. He shared his thoughts about history of visualization, balancing creativity, and Apple’s software development policies.


What was your background before your Ph.D. work at MIT?

I studied graphic design and computer science, but separately. I was interested in both since I was young, then during undergrad, majored in design at Carnegie Mellon, and minored in computer science.

How has the field of data visualization changed since you began?

When I started lecturing about it about 10 years ago, I had to explain a lot more that, one, too much data was a problem, and two, visualization was a possible solution. Five years ago, people no longer needed to be convinced that data was a problem, but weren’t very familiar with visualization. In the last year or two it’s shifted to people asking for data visualization directly. It’s a bit surreal.

What do you see in store for the field going forward?

I’m not a good person to answer this — I wouldn’t have predicted that things would be where they are today. For instance, having done work for years with trying to get data myself, or scraping it from sites, or having to do a lot of digging and asking, it’s such an incredible change to have “open data” be something that people are advocating and pushing for, even with the government in the form of data.gov.

What’s your current favorite example of inspiring data visualization?

I usually find work outside data visualization most inspiring. Golan Levin turned me on to the work of Tim Hawkinson, for example, who is an artist who does a lot of work about putting form around different kinds of “data.” I’m most inspired by work that helps us see things differently, or helps engage our curiosity. Or things that are clever and beautiful.

Who else is involved with your consulting venture? What sort of team do you have?

I incorporated at the beginning of the year, and have been working to build out a firm that will help me address larger projects/ideas/problems than I can work on alone. It’s started with mostly freelancers and will soon evolve into a couple staff plus freelancers.

For whom do you consult, and about what?

This varies quite a bit. I’ve been doing work for GE around their Ecomagination and Healthymagination initiatives, which I can talk about since the projects are public, but I can’t talk about the others. The GE work has largely been about taking data and turning it into something comprehensible that can reach a wider audience. The other projects are in a similar vein — they just vary across different fields (genetics, finance, pharma), which also keeps things interesting.

Do you have the freedom, in your current position, to explore your own interests freely?

I try to balance client work with personal projects, since this helps keep ideas moving and also provides better examples that I can show to potential clients. I’ve found it really important to maintain that balance (at the cost of just working all the time) for preventing burnout.

What is your most fanciful dream for the iPad?

That Apple gives up on their ridiculous attempts to control who creates for it, and what they can create for it. Their policy of controlling all distribution of applications created for it, and requiring approval on all applications is insulting to developers, especially those who have created software for their products for years. It’s an amazing platform and device, but I have a hard time getting excited about developing for it. If such restrictions were in place when I was first learning to write software — mostly on Apple machines, no less — I wouldn’t today be getting interviewed for a curious stranger’s blog.

Update: Ben Fry has written more about Apple and developing for the iPad on his site since this interview was conducted.

About this site

    Katie Peek is a science writer and astronomer who is figuring out how to give voice to information and data. This web site is a log of her voyage.