Review - Interactive Data Visualization for the Web

I’ve been reading Scott Murray’sexcellentbook Interactive Data Visualization for the Webthis week. Actually, I’ve been reading a lot of O’Reilly books as of late because they keep offering to sell them to me at a huge discount. Ostensibly the book is about d3.js which is my personal favorite datavisualizationlibrary for JavaScript.It is a pretty well thought out book and I would recommend it for those looking to explore d3.js.I don’t know that it is really about interactive data visualizations so much as it is about one specific technology for creating visualizations. However if we ignore the title then the contents stand by themselves.

I discovered the book because I cam across Scott’s blogwhen I was doing a spike on d3.js some weeks back. His blog was expanded into the book. The book starts with a look at why we build data visualizations, offers some alternative toolkits then jumps right into d3.js. I would have liked to see more of a discussion around the technologies available in HTML5 forvisualizingdata.In addition to SVG, which d3.js leverages, there is canvas and you can also build some pretty interesting things in pure CSS3. There are also many tools for doing static image generation on the server side.

A significant section of the book is dedicated to teaching JavaScript and presenting web fundamentals. I wasn’t impressed that so much effort had gone into a topic which is covered so well by many other books. I’m sure it was just that I’m not the target audience of this section. By chapter 5, though, things are getting interesting.

Scott introduces d3 in more detail and talks about method chaining(a huge part of d3) and getting data. The rest of the book builds on the basic d3.js knowledge by creating more and more complicated graphs. The book moves through bar chart and scatter plot before adding talk of using scales and leveraging animation. I had been a bit confused about how to make use of dynamic data sets in d3 but the section on how to add data cleared that up nicely.

I think the real key to this book is the chapter on interactions. Anybody can draw a graph server side, the story for creating it in JavaScript becomes much more compelling when users can click on items in the graph and have things happen. There is a pretty extensive discussion about how to add tooltips to your visualizations. I have to admit I was a bit miffed by that because I was going to do a blog series along the same lines and now I’ll just look like an idea stealing baboon instead of an insightful orangutang.

Finally a couple of more advanced topics are covered including talking about some(not all, mind you) of the buit in layouts in d3.js. Finally mapping is covered. Thank goodness there is some discussion of projections because that is what got me when I worked with maps in d3.js.

There is very little discussion about what makes a good visualization and there is no attempt to come up with any unique visualizations.If you’re interested in that aspect then pretty much anything which comes out of Stephen Few is insightful and superinteresting.

For the price that O’Reilly charged me for this book it is 100% worth it. Plus I hear that for every time you look at an O’Reilly book and don’t buy it they kill one of the animals pictured on the cover.

Book CoverBook Cover