As an undergrad, Fernanda Viégas dropped out twice and studied chemical engineering, linguistics, and education on two continents, before finally finishing with a degree in graphic design. And then, she didn't want to be a graphic designer.
Nonetheless, that trait of never quite knowing what she wanted lures her to what no one's ever done before: First, as a data visualization researcher at IBM, and now as cofounder of visualization firm Flowing Media, she's immersed in the burgeoning field of online infographics.
Viégas, a native of Brazil, ended up at the MIT media lab after her undergrad studies, applying her graphic-design training to problems that went unnoticed by code geeks: She created methods of visualizing how conversations unfold between members in a chat room (this was 2001, mind you); and how conversations clustered together and bubbled up in a newsgroup. As an intern at IBM, she met her current collaborator, Martin Wattenberg. Together, they created the first visualization of edits on Wikipedia.
But Themail produced her big breakthrough. The project visualized the user's email exchanges and showed what words were most commonly used and with whom.
She'd assumed that test users would be paranoid about security—but it turns out, the first thing they always wanted to do was show off their email patterns to others. "It quickly became about sharing your data, and telling stories around it," she says.
Viégas realized that infographics could become unparalleled social tools. And that insight inspired her and Wattenberg to create Many Eyes, in 2007. There, anyone can upload a data set, and use a number of tools to visualize it. And you can also browse other data sets, and visualize them in new ways, to find new patterns.
More recently, Viégas has contributed to Many Bills, an IBM project developed by Irene Ros and Yannick Assogba, which helps people wade through the messy process of laws being made in congress. "You'll be able to see, for example, that in this credit-card bill there's something about guns or national parks," says Viegas, who recently left IBM to launch her own visualization studio with Martin Wattenberg. The hope is that eventually, tools like this one will become as much a part of political discourse as news reports, speeches, and ads