Design, data visualisation and weissbier at Dagstuhl

Earlier this year, I was invited to take part in a week-long “seminar” on data visualization for biology, to be held in September 2012, at a computer science institute called Schloss Dagstuhl, in Germany. I was pleased and surprised to receive this invitation out-of-the-blue, having never heard of Dagstuhl, but given that it came from Seán O’Donoghue (co-organiser of the Vizbi conference), I was happy to accept.

To start with, I didn’t know who else was invited or what I was supposed to do there. As it is, it turned out to be a very rewarding and productive session. Outcomes include papers, talks, invitations, videos, sketchnotes (of course!), plans for future events and conferences, and new collaborations.

Schloss Dagstuhl

Yes, there is an actual Schloss… a mini one, at least

Planes, trains and automobiles

I arrived at Schloss Dagstuhl on a Sunday afternoon. It is miles from anywhere, in the Saarland region of Germany, and it took bloody ages to get there, frankly! Still, by that time, the 40 or so attendees had been given a list of who else would be there. I had time to learn about some of the people I hadn’t met before, and to boggle a bit at all the concentrated talent and experience! Structural biologists, bioinformaticians, computer graphics experts, and professors of information visualization were all represented. I wasn’t yet all that sure where a user experience designer like me could fit in.

Introducing ourselves and choosing topics

On the first day, we had two minutes each to introduce ourselves and our expertise to the other attendees and after that, we got stuck into deciding exactly what we would work on for the rest of the week.

There were a few people in the group (mostly from computer science backgrounds) who had been to Dagstuhl before, and described  it to me, quite reasonably, as being like a think tank. There was a range of expertise gathered together, we had a major subject to focus on, nowhere else to go, and we had to produce things.

Topics covered included:

  • Education – how to teach biologists about data viz, and perhaps vice-versa;
  • Infrastructure;
  • Community;
  • Evaluation (usability and UCD);
  • Sequence browsers and annotation;
  • Multiple scales & dimensions;
  • Ontologies;
  • Graphs – dynamic problems in biology

The whole group split into smaller breakout groups of 8 – 12 people. I worked on Ontologies for a day and a half, and then on Evaluation for another day and a half. I also worked a little bit on the Multiple scales & dimensions topic. The format reminded me of unconferences that I’ve attended but with more discussion and democracy and less post-it notes (really, not enough!).

Something else that Dagstuhl has but unconferences tend not to have is an inexhaustible supply of beer! There was a system of trust, whereby we each recorded our consumption during the week (and that’s an alarming exercise, I can tell you!) and then pay for it at the end. So, a fair amount of weißbier was consumed!

There were also a few talks

Just to set the scene and give us all some different perspectives, we also had talks from some of the attendees. Seán O’Donoghue talked about “BioVis: history, overview, perspective”; Daniel Evanko talked about data visualization on, and about the ENCODE project in particular; Matthew Ward is interested in “Biovisualisation education” and asked “what should students know?”; Arthur Olson talked about Interacting with Protein Interactions”; the inimitable Martin Krzywinski spoke about “Visualization: communicating clearly”; Bang Wong shared “Concepts gleaned from disparate communities” – illustration, outreach, typography, art and science.

Of course, I made sketchnotes for all these talks, like this one from Bang Wong’s talk.

Ontologies break-out group

The first break-out group I joined was the one on ontologies, partly because there were already some designerly types in other groups, I know a little bit about ontologies, and because Sheelagh Carpendale was in this group (Sheelagh is one of the co-authors of the Sketching User Experiences Workbook!).

I had some input in the initial discussion, for which I also made sketchnotes (below), but my main involvement in this group was to take the role of facilitator and turn our discussion into a workshop. That meant I was able to use all sorts of tricks and methods from the kind of workshops that my colleagues and I run as part of our UX design work to really drive people towards decisions in a focused way.

For half a day, we worked on the challenge of improving the ontology of figures and diagrams. For the other half, we dealt with how one might employ an API that allows access to Nature articles that have been tagged using manually-curated ontologies. My group was tired but happy, I think.

Ontologies break-out group: sketchnotes

Evaluation breakout group

Half-way through the week, we all changed topics and groups. Predictably enough, I joined the group looking at Evaluation. I found this very interesting: obviously, I was able to have a lot more input here, and discuss data visualisation from the perspective of a UX designer. But for me, the most intriguing thing that we touched on was the differences between how certain communities think about “evaluation”.

Professor of information visualisation at TU Eindhoven, Jarke van Wijk, explained that in that community, “evaluations” generally take the form of fairly large “user studies”, done at the end of a piece of work, to effectively prove the worth of publishing it.

Somehow at the other end of the scale, the kind of work I do at the EBI generally stresses the idea of taking a user-centered approach at the start of a project, and developing iteratively, based on a dialogue and shared understanding with users of the end product. The methods we use, therefore, are broadly more “formative” than “summative”.

In biosciences, where (outside the biomedical field, at least) thinking about usability and the user experience is fairly new, there is no “tradition” of requiring large user studies to prove that something is good. I am certainly unaware of it being a stipulation of journal publishers or reviewers.

So this was quite an eye-opener for us all. Encouragingly, it suggests that working on how to apply [UX] design principles to data visualisation can be very valuable across communities. It is something I have been increasingly interested in over the last couple of years, and that former Interfaces speakers like Noah Iliinsky, Bang Wong and Miriah Myer are already writing and teaching about.

Evaluation breakout group: sketchnotes

My sketchnotes from the Evaluation breakout group

Well that was nice… now what?

Since coming back, I’ve given a talk for my friends in the EBI ontologies interest group and then helped to facilitate a one-day workshop on how to better use ontologies in the EBI’s work. Thankfully, I now know rather more about ontologies than I did a few weeks ago!

I’m involved in writing a paper about the ontology of figures and diagrams, and another about the video of multiple scales and dimensions. There are also some other plans, bubbling away in the background. Some existing connections and friendships have been reinforced by having this shared focus for a week. Great!

As Jennifer Aniston would say, here’s the science bit, girls…

Just to finish off, here’s Art Olson, a professor at The Scripps Research Institute, and Dagstuhl attendee, demonstrating augmented reality software that allows a webcam to track the motion of 3d printed models. Awesome.


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