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April 8, 2014: People of ACM: Ben Shneiderman

Today's Topic: People of ACM: People of ACM: Ben Shneiderman

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ben Shneiderman is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Founding Director (1983-2000) of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory at the University of Maryland. He is a Fellow of ACM, AAAS, and IEEE, and a Member of the National Academy of Engineering, in recognition of his pioneering contributions to human-computer interaction and information visualization. His contributions include the direct manipulation concept, clickable highlighted web-link, touchscreen keyboards, dynamic query sliders for Spotfire, development of treemaps, innovative network visualization strategies for NodeXL, and temporal event sequence analysis for electronic health records.

Shneiderman is the co-author with Catherine Plaisant of Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction. With Stuart Card and Jock Mackinlay, he co-authored Readings in Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think. His book Leonardo's Laptop won the IEEE Book Award for Distinguished Literary Contribution. His latest book, with Derek Hansen and Marc Smith, is Analyzing Social Media Networks with NodeXL.



What inspired you to develop a visual map of the Twitterverse and discover its six distinct patterns of Twitter conversations?

During our seven years of work on NodeXL, we developed increasingly refined strategies for network visualizations, including twitter discussions. Like a 17th–century botanist on a new continent, we found species that fit neatly into six categories. We confirmed the "polarized crowd" that others had seen for political discussions, and the refined techniques in NodeXL allowed us to discover five other species. The "broadcast network" was common for leading media or pundits, with their followers leading lively discussions in smaller groups. "Support networks" show how customer complaints are handled by leading companies. The report I authored with Marc Smith, Itai Himelboim, and Lee Rainie, "Mapping Twitter Topic Networks: From Polarized Crowds to Community Clusters", published by the Pew Research Internet Project, triggered a broad media response.

In the era of big data, do you foresee more knowledge transfer and commercialization opportunities like Spotfire, which applied visualization and dynamic query technologies pioneered at your Human-Computer Interaction Lab, to explore and understand large data sets?

Big Data requires Big Insights! As the White House press release on Big Data pointed out, there are two main challenges: (1) scalable algorithms for working with imperfect data and (2) effective human-computer interaction tools for facilitating visual reasoning. This integration of algorithms and information visualization tools has amply demonstrated its value during the past 20 years. I am very proud that our early research, published in the ACM CHI (Computer Human Interaction) conference proceedings of 1993 and 1994, led to the commercially successful Spotfire product (acquired by TIBCO in 2007) and hundreds of other commercial and free visual analytics systems. The University of Maryland Human-Computer Interaction Lab presents its latest work at the annual symposium on May 29.

Are you confident that the computing field has accepted your premise that building bridges between disciplines benefits all parties?

I have long believed in the power of interdisciplinary research that brings academic researchers to work on real problems with real users exploring real data. This approach to what I call "high-impact research" has a growing circle of believers, but there are still many researchers who prefer the isolation of their labs, synthetic data, and narrow validation. I believe that engaging with real users, data and problems raises the quality of basic research and lowers the barriers to technology transfer.

As a pioneer in human-computer interaction and its problem-solving capabilities, what advice would you give to young people considering careers in computing?

Computing and information studies continue to present exciting opportunities in information visualization, social media, health informatics, citizen science, education analytics, digital government, and digital humanities. There are many challenges for which computing and information studies will play a significant role such as sustainability, community safety, business innovation, dispute resolution, and diplomacy. These newer topics will require creative reformulations of our field and consideration of deeper issues such as trust, empathy, responsibility, and privacy. The best is yet to come!