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Information+ Conference 2023: Getting inspired by the Data Visualization Community

From November 22nd to 24th 2023, a group of Celonis software engineers and product managers: Philipp, Donna, Laura, Sabeth, and Caro attended the Information+ Conference 2023, an interdisciplinary conference on information design and visualization.

It was a three day conference hosting about 200 researchers, designers and developers, featuring lots of inspiring presentations and workshops. Read on to learn more about accessibility in data visualization, joyful dashboard building, telling your data story and discover great data-based artworks created by practitioners, artists, and researchers in the data visualization field.

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The conference took place in Edinburgh, UK, a city designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We got to walk through the beautiful medieval streets and buildings surrounding the University of Edinburgh, including the main conference venue: ”The Pleasance Theatre”. During this trip, aside from the talks and workshops, we hiked the mystic landscapes of the Isle of Skye, experienced the warm Scottish culture, tried out (vegan) Haggis, and even did some traditional folk dancing at the conference party. 💃

In the following section, we will recap our favorite workshops and highlights of the conference.

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Our favorite workshops

The first day of the conference was dedicated to workshops. Let’s dive into our two favorite workshop topics:

Values-Based Analytics: Seeing the People in the Data

In this workshop, researchers from the BBC presented their “Human Values” toolkit which brings the psychological needs of the audience at the heart of data projects.

Caro used this workshop to think about KPI (Key Performance Indicators) visualizations. Many of our customers want to use gauge visualizations as part of our dashboard-ing capabilities. Gauge visualizations promise to show the status of initiatives that are important to us and if things are “under control”. From a data viz standpoint, gauges have some limitations, for example, it’s hard to compare between metrics, one cannot see trends over time and information density is low. Putting on our “human value” glasses we identified the following potential underlying values: achieving goals, feeling of creating impact, and being safe and well.

In the next step, we brainstormed with other participants about which other visualizations could fulfill these underlying values even better. We also discussed if the underlying human values of a task can be “replaced” by others. As an example, we wondered if we could induce the value “being inspired” to users working with dashboards and motivate them to dig deeper and go beyond aggregating visualizations.

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Tell your Data Story

This was a very hands-on workshop where we put into practice our data visualization and storytelling skills. We worked in groups to collect data about our everyday lives, then experimented with different ways to visually represent and encode it so that others could explore it. Interesting discussions arose around how to represent abstract data such as feelings, if data visualization needs to be always explicit, and are 3-dimensional data visualizations useful (we don’t know, but they sure are fun!). Everyone put on their creative hats and freely explored outside-of-the-box data visualizations. If you want to learn more about a similar exercise we suggest you take a look at the "Journal Data Viz Challenge".

It was a big contrast with the work we do at Celonis where we usually don’t have much information about the data that our customers have and will use our visualization components for. Here, when focusing on a small, personal, and curated dataset, we could think about more subtle and unusual ways to encode information visually. It was a lot of fun!

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Key Highlights from Information+ Conference 2023

Highlight #1: “You’re doing it wrong”: A celebration of "worst" practices by Stefanie Posavec

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The conference's opening keynote was a very insightful talk by Stefanie Posavec, a renowned author in the data visualization field, notable for her playful and experimental approach to visualization and communicating with data.

Stefanie took us on a journey through her career where she approaches data visualization with a boundary-pushing mindset. On each of her different projects, she challenged the set-in-stone belief that data visualization is a tool to answer specific questions that result in someone taking a big action. Instead, by inverting the limitations set by the ‘best practices’ of the field, she has broadened the spectrum of the value that data visualization can bring to the world, such as understanding the hidden complexity of a topic, having a nice conversation, or even marveling at how beautiful the world is.

Working in an environment where our goal is to optimize business processes and reduce time to value, we could very well identify with the narrative that “data visualization needs to provide insights and lead to a big action” but we often struggle to quantify the value of visualization in these terms.

Stefanie's presentation was quite insightful into the additional ways visualization creates value for our users. It might not always be immediate insights and big actions, but can also be a fruitful conversation or research discussion, a deeper understanding of a process, or create a sense of belonging.

Highlight #2: Accessibility

The conference's first session was about “Inclusive Perspectives” moderated by Moritz Stefaner. It contained a mix of talks around the topic of accessibility in data visualization and data visualization as a tool for accessibility, all of which raised critical thoughts on who are we building data visualizations for.

We learned about how there are almost no guidelines that include right-to-left readers in our data visualization design practices, and about accessibility projects such as Olli, which is an extensible open-source javascript library for converting visualization specifications from, example: vega-lite and observable plot into hierarchical text structures that can be used to navigate the visualization’s data by keyboard. We also had a very nice chat with the creators of Olli to integrate this solution with our components.

During this session, Donna presented some of the work that the data visualization team did at Celonis for accessibility. She shared technical as well as theoretical challenges we faced while trying to make the charts and visualization in Celonis products accessible to users with different abilities. She covered topics such as screen readers for charts, keyboard navigation, and data selection on different types of visualizations and how this initiative improved our overall product usability. We were pleasantly surprised to see how others are facing similar issues to us and what we are building at Celonis is pushing the boundaries on what is possible from which others can learn or build upon.

Overall it was encouraging to see how accessibility in visualization is a vastly unexplored topic with a lot of questions to be answered where research and industry can learn from each other to create a set of best practices.

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Highlight #3: A Joyful Conference

It’s safe to say that Info+ '23 was not your average conference but more playful, artsy and experimental. We were happy and proud to contribute to that vibe with Caro’s talk titled “What brings you joy? Towards more joyful dashboard-ing products”.

For most people, dashboard-ing products are not the first thing that comes to mind when presented with this question. Caro shared how our teams set sail to provide a more joyful building experience for our users. You can see the outcome of our efforts here.

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Another joyful moment at the conference: In a physicalization workshop we used objects to visualize an interesting data set on appropriateness of behavior in different contexts. For that, we used mundane and reusable materials of a physicalization kit to visualize questions such as “Is it okay to laugh during a job interview? To fight on a bus? To laugh in the park?”

We witnessed the benefits of physical data visualizations such as immersion, deeper understanding of the data and naturally enhanced collaboration and communication.

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Highlight #4: Navigation and Narration of a Complex Flowchart

One of the talks we found most interesting during the session “Matters of Concern” chaired by Georgia Panagiotidou was: "Navigating and narrating an interactive flowchart of the climate crisis", an interaction technique for flowcharts that combines progressive disclosure, linear storytelling, and open-ended exploration.

The project, which started as an exercise to create a digital experience out of a flowchart in the book “I Want A Better Catastrophe”, explores how an interactive version of a chart could make its contents and connections explorable, narratable, and ultimately relatable.

The prototype shows a process visualization that starts with a simple question. By simply clicking through the different nodes, the user can explore and find different paths and answers to these questions. Additionally, the flowchart is accompanied by a sound narration by the author which gives more insight into each of the individual bubbles as well as ties the flowchart as a whole narrative piece.

At Celonis, we also build quite a few flowchart visualizations for our users such as the Process Explorer, Variant Explorer, Network Explorer, and Process Adherence Manager to visualize our client's complex processes. This talk was very eye-opening to the possibilities of including new interactive and storytelling elements in process visualizations and progressive disclosure strategies to explain complex issues more gradually.

If you are interested in the technical side this project is published as a reusable template on GitHub.

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Highlight #5: Information XYZ

We attended Information XYZ, the design exhibition held at the conference by practitioners, artists, and researchers. It was a great testimonial of engaging, playful and pleasant data visualizations. Check out pictures of some of our favorite artworks:

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  • "Mapping diversity", Matteo Moretti

  • “Though a patriarchy would privilege the changelessness—of the sun—over the inconstancy of the moon and you”, Shirley Wu

  • "Back to square one: When our fashion waste comes back to us", Ilaria Marzano

  • "From my terrace", Alessia Musio

  • "The hidden impacts we consume: Imported and home-grown fruit in the UK", Carla Fernandez Arce

Our Main Takeaways

Seeing, learning, and talking with a wide range of data visualization practitioners gave us a great overview of the possibilities and potential where Celonis can make an impact in the field, not only from the process mining perspective but on overall technical and conceptual challenges where we have already done a lot of work such as accessibility, graph-based visualizations, and data visualization tool-making, just to name a few.

Finally, thanks to the amazing talks by Donna and Caro, Celonis was positioned as a company at the front and center of data visualization innovation. We left the conference more inspired than ever to build and create better data and data visualization products for our customers to make the most sense out of their data and hope to come back to keep contributing to the interesting conversations in the data visualization community.

Extra: Some nice resources we picked up during the conference:

Author Note: This blog was a team effort, with valuable contributions from my co-authors: Philipp Koytek (Team Lead, Visualisations) and Carolin Ullrich (Senior Product Manager).

Laura Junco Author Pic
Laura Junco
Senior Software Engineer

Laura is a Senior Software Engineer in the Data Visualization Team. With a degree in Design, she aims to bridge the gap between the technical and visual aspects of data visualization. Laura and her teammates specialize in creating best-in-class visualization tools for all of Celonis Products.

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