Do GIFs Make Good or Bad Data Visualizations? Academic Study Seeks Answer

by Jon Salm 11 months ago Filed Under: Design

The GIF might seem like an informal file format popular with bloggers and listicle makers, but one group in France has been tracking how people use GIFs as a data visualization format in an academic study.

The study was conducted by Romain Vuillemot, a data visualization fellow at Harvard University, Jeremy Boy, from The French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control‘s AVIZ visual analytics project, and Marian Dörk from Newcastle University. The trio began their study with a simple question – how do people use GIFs to communicate interesting visualization projects?

Vuillemot said that “most visualizations are not usable after a couple of months or years, at best,” due to the short life span of projects, websites that go down, incompatible Java or Flash settings, or the lack of portability and interoperability with mobile-friendly modes.

While many [interactive] visualizations become short-lived due to software or compatibility issues, Vuillemot, Boy, and Dörk noticed that GIFs do not and have made a “sweeping comeback” among a wide variety of users, from journalists looking to inform to artists looking to entertain.

“The diversity of uses demonstrates the emergence of a powerful medium of expression,” Vuillemot said. “They also solved both portability and interoperability issues. They’ve been out there forever, and will last forever.”

In order to track and study how people use GIFs as data visualization, the VisGIF team launched a simple site, VizGIF.it, which relies upon user-submitted GIF visualizations. The site encourages visitors to download a Google Chrome GIF creator plugin, which seamlessly supports the entire GIF creation process – capture, edit, and share. The experiment collects and tracks user submissions, which the team will use in a paper to be submitted to conferences.

The group doesn’t currently have a claim if GIFs are good or bad for data visualization, but are aiming to discover if they can make one either way. Right now, they are captivated by the format’s potential.

“We are particularly interested in the potential of GIFs for advanced information visualization techniques communication, ranging from dissemination and education to sharing and storytelling,” Vuillemot said. “We expect to better understand the visual grammar behind the GIFs and provide a set of guidelines for designers, researchers or anyone who needs to communicate a story from a visualization tool.”

To learn more about VisGIF and to submit your own GIF visualizations, visit VizGIF.it or the group’s tumbler site visgif.tumblr.com, which hosts a curated list of the project’s GIFs.

Jon Salm is an associate client analyst at Millward Brown Digital in New York City and a freelance data journalist in the Visual.ly marketplace. He has a bachelor’s degree in English from Washington and Lee University. You can find him online at about.me/salm.jon and follow him on twitter @S4LM3R.