Visualization as you've never seen it before

Changed on 09/12/2020
Twenty years ago, data visualization was risky research. Today, it affects many areas of society. A meteoric growth in which Jean-Daniel Fekete, Inria research director specializing in human-computer interactions and head of the joint Aviz team between Inria, INS2I of the CNRS and the University of Paris-Saclay, has played a major role. He looks back on the development of this interdisciplinary research field in which France is one of the world leaders.
Ill _ datavisualisation

First historical steps in visualization

To put in image the invisible, it is possible thanks to visualization! This field of research facilitates the understanding of data by representing them in visual form. From monitoring the evolution of the Covid-19 to real-time projections of the American elections, visualization has democratized its tools in record time, to the point of fully integrating our daily life.

Indeed, this discipline has a short but intense history. It was born in 1990, at the time of the creation of the annual IEEE* Visualization conference (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). Originally, it was dedicated solely to the 3D representation of real objects and their environment, such as an airplane and the flow of fluids around it. But it has since been greatly enriched and is now at the interface between computer graphics, statistics, cartography and human-computer interaction.

Pioneering research

Who is Jean-Daniel Fekete?

Jean-Daniel Fekete has been scientific manager of Inria's Aviz project team since 2006. As a research director in computer science, he specializes in data exploration and understanding through interactive visualization tools. During his career, he has held several positions in professional societies, award committees and scientific program committees. In 2014, he supervised and coordinated the entire IEEE VIS conference as General Chair.

Until 2002, France was invisible on an international level, having at that time only a few teams specialized in 3D graphics. Everything was still to be done when Jean-Daniel Fekete, recruited at Inria Futurs, joined the InSitu project-team focused on human-computer interactions. "The research I conducted at the time was original, not at all in the spirit of the times. Inria allowed me to follow my scientific intuitions and impressions, which are paying off in a central discipline, and even standard today," says the researcher.

In the 2000s, he created a toolkit (Infovis Toolkit) for the design and development of visualization tools. He also expanded the field of visual representation of networks, previously limited to "nodes and links", by highlighting new ways of displaying them (adjacency matrices, hybrids, etc.). This aspect of his research now applies to all types of networks, both to the study of social networks and neural networks.

Rise of the Aviz team and international recognition

In 2006, Jean-Daniel Fekete created the Aviz (Analysis and VisualiZation) project-team, a joint venture between the Inria Saclay - Île-de-France research center and the LRI (INS2I's computer science research laboratory). She collaborates with Microsoft and Google, and publishes extensively in prestigious conferences in the field. Its former students settle around the world, sometimes in the service of research, sometimes in the service of industry. As a result, the team is growing rapidly. "In 2014, we organized the annual IEEE VIS conference in Paris with a record attendance. It was the first time it was held outside the United States in almost 25 years, and it marked the crowning achievement of our international visibility," recalls Jean-Daniel Fekete.

At the time, his team was one of the most cited in the world in connection with the conference, placing Inria and France at the forefront of the scene. This recognition by the community reached its peak in 2020 for Jean-Daniel Fekete, when he received the honorary title of Technical Achievement Award from the IEEE Visualization and Graphics Technical Committee (VGTC) in recognition of his career.  He was then inducted into the Visualization Academy of the IEEE VGCT.

Cinq prix prestigeux pour Jean-Daniel Fekete

Five prestigious awards for Jean-Daniel Fekete

  • IEEE VGTC Visualization Technical Award (2020), which recognizes individuals whose research has made a significant contribution to the scientific community specializing in visualization.
  • IEEE VGTC Visualization Academy (2020), the most prestigious award in this field.
  • ACM SIGCHI Academy Award (Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction) (2020), awarded for its work in the field of human-machine interaction.
  • AMiner Most Influential Scholar Award (2007~2017), which rewards the most cited researchers over the last ten years in the field of artificial intelligence.
  • Computing Reviews' Notable Books and Articles 2013 for its article "Visual Analytics Infrastructures: From Data Management to Exploration".

De nouvelles visions pour l’aide à la décision

« Désormais, nous devons rendre les systèmes d’analyse de données plus faciles à manier pour des raisons scientifiques, démocratiques et sociales, souligne le chercheur. La visualisation sert à l’appréhension simplifiée d’importantes quantités de données en vue de mieux comprendre le monde et prendre de meilleures décisions. » En ce sens, la recherche se concentre notamment sur les utilisateurs. Qui va utiliser et interpréter ces données ? À qui se destinent-elles ? Comprendre cet acteur est essentiel à la visualisation interactive, car il sera amené à agir sur le contenu afin d’en extraire des enseignements.

Illustration - Réexamen des matrices de Bertin : New Interactions for Crafting Tabular Visualizations.
Charles Perin, Pierre Dragicevic and Jean-Daniel Fekete
Nouvelles interactions pour l'élaboration de visualisations tabulaires

Par ailleurs, l’un des enjeux de la visualisation n’est plus d’observer des données telles qu’elles sont, mais d’y appliquer de nouvelles analyses. Une démarche au cœur de grandes ambitions : au-delà de ce qui se passe maintenant, il faut pouvoir prédire le déroulement à venir. Pourquoi ? Principalement afin d’aider la prise de décision d’ingénieurs ou encore de décideurs politiques. Comment ? Grâce à des projections visuelles du comportement d’un système industriel, du climat futur, de l’impact d’une pandémie, etc.

Enfin, la visualisation n’a jamais été aussi transverse. Qu’elle s’associe à l’astronomie, à la médecine ou encore à l’histoire, ses outils contribuent à la compréhension de nombreuses disciplines. Et Jean-Daniel Fekete de préciser : « Un même outil de visualisation des réseaux peut servir à représenter des migrations pour un historien, ainsi que des connexions cérébrales aux yeux d’un neurobiologiste. C’est alors l’application spécialisée qui donne le sens aux images que l’on obtient.

Inria Futurs: at the launch of original nuggets that have become indispensable

Picto concept rouge

In 2002, Inria created Futurs, a new multi-site research unit (Lille, Saclay, Bordeaux) with the aim of deploying the institute throughout France. Its management is entrusted to Claude Puech, then professor at the Joseph-Fourier University in Grenoble. Puech had the difficult task of setting up Inria centers in new regions. An "experimental" construction that encourages the launch of innovative projects. "The management - and especially Gilles Kahn, Inria's Scientific Director and then CEO - was very open to the idea of bringing new subjects into the Inria house. I was able to propose the creation of projects that were marginal for the time, and to distance myself sometimes from what was dominant at the institute," recalls the researcher. Risk-taking was then encouraged with research that went off the beaten track, such as human-computer interaction, simulation in surgery and, as surprising as it may seem today, artificial intelligence. A pioneering state of mind that continues and is anchored as an essential feature of Inria's research in the company of scientific excellence.