Weave open-source data visualization offers power, flexibility

It's in beta now after three years of development

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Another issue is basic to a lot of early-stage open-source software: limited formal training options for staff compared to more established commercial products. However, she believes that will change as Weave becomes more widely adopted.

There are about 25 organizations that have been using Weave and giving feedback, including 10 since the project's beginning. "Each one had a whole set of different requirements," Grinstein said. "The technology is so rich because of the first 10 users.... We're driven by requests."

Farnam called the interaction between consortium members and UMass students and faculty "pretty remarkable," with features being regularly added and updated during an agile development process as the software evolved through version 1.0.

About 25 to 30 students have worked on the project in its first three years at UMass-Lowell, in partnership with the Open Indicators Consortium, a group of early users and supporters of the project. Grinstein expects work will continue for another three years at UMass-Lowell, and involve whatever additions the open-source community wants to contribute. The project was built using Adobe Flex and ActionScript.

Several more powerful features have already been architected and are just awaiting user-interface design, including collaboration and session-capture expected this summer.

Collaboration will allow people in multiple locations to work on a visualization together in real time, without needing a screen-sharing application such as WebEx, Grinstein said.

Session-capture will let users record every step they do in making a visualization, so they can re-create the process for another visualization or share their steps with other users. Once privacy issues are worked out, Grinstein said, such session captures could also be used by researchers to better understand how people interact with data -- and even offer suggested next steps to new users if they get stuck.

Weave is still somewhat difficult to install, Grinstein admitted, but plans call for a lighter one-click installer by summer as well.

Also on the way: so-called "infomaps," one of the patented technologies within Weave, that can tie a mapping visualization to a collection of documents. Even if a document isn't geocoded but just mentions, say, "Andover, Massachusetts," Grinstein said, that document would be retrieved if a user clicked on Andover on the Weave-created map. It is, Grinstein said, like Google Maps tied to a body of documents -- while also offering multi-visualization interactivity.

St. Clair said she's become so used to working in Weave that she finds herself getting frustrated in Excel because she can't simply mouse over numbers and see matching data highlighted on a nearby chart.

"You start not being satisfied with filtering data in spreadsheets," Farnam agreed.

Interaction, St. Clair added, "starts to morph the way you think about data."

Weave visualization

Job growth in the Boston area by community, created on Metro Boston DataCommon using Weave. See the interactive version.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000, on Facebook, on Google+ or by subscribing to her RSS feeds:
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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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