How Ben Shneiderman’s Treemaps Were Found In The Museum Of Modern Art


Treemap, a type of visualization chart primarily used, was invented by Ben Shneiderman in 1990. The founding director of the Human-Machine Interaction Laboratory (HCIL) was inspired by optical art images he encountered in the 1960s, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Treemaps are huge square boxes that include data trees in the form of rectangles. The concept involves colors and shapes to achieve clarity in the presentation of complex data in the form of trees. Shneiderman designed 12 of these treemaps using real-time data, which is held in modern art museums across America.

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While he initially used the Treemap to understand hard drive space allocation in 1990, the aesthetic choices involved in creating treemaps paved the way for a later implementation of the concept in data visualization. . David Woodword’s “Art and Cartography” work established the importance of visuals used to tell a story. In his book he explains the paintings of Dutch painters who drew maps from this era that hung on the walls like works of art.

How Op-Art Inspired Shneiderman

Source: Wikipedia

The Shneiderman Treemap is a tiling mechanism used to visualize a tree structure through nested rectangles of different colors. Treemaps are mainly used to visualize the hierarchy of data. This concept of data visualization focuses on the adaptable use of space, with colors representing varying information. Shneiderman drew inspiration from the ‘Op Art’ of the 1960s and the exhibitions he encountered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Op Art or Optical Art is a kinetic art form linked to geometric designs that create movement when the viewer sees the image. In 1965, an exhibition in New York called “The Responsive Eye” featured several op art images in black and white. The artistic motifs in these images have influenced the style of print graphics, fashion and advertising.

Shneiderman took inspiration from Op Art and established four aesthetic aspects of Treemaps:

  • Layout design (slice and dice, checkered, ordered, stripped)
  • Color palette (mute, bold, sequential, divergent, rainbow),
  • The aspect ratio of the entire image (square, golden ratio, wide, high) and
  • The prominence of borders for each region, each hierarchical level and the surrounding area.

What exactly are Treemaps?

Treemaps are boxes with rectangles of different sizes that are colored. The aesthetic used in these forms displays data that triggers the interest (emotions) of the viewers. Even though algorithmic rules constrain treemaps, the aesthetics involved in the process give way to creative exploration. In his book, “Every Algorithm Contains ART,” Scheiderman explains the 12 impressions of Treemaps based on data provided by international organizations. The original prints of these treemaps were first displayed at the Computer Education Center at the University of Maryland on August 26, 2013. Although it was initially decided that the prints will be hung for two months, it has become a permanent exhibition for the state of the art that this implies.

Ben Shneiderman with one of his treemaps. Source: WordPress

Shneiderman’s treemaps traveled as part of the exhibition titled “Every AlgoRiThm has ART in it: Treemap Art Project”. With treemaps, Shneiderman claims that the human mind treats information differently when it is visually organized. It is an attempt to understand human interaction with data visualization through art.

With the use of colored blocks, Treemap makes it easier for viewers to base their understanding on size, appearance, and colors. Treemap is made up of nested rectangles or tiles, and the area of ​​each rectangle is proportional to the data they represent. Larger rectangles indicate higher hierarchical levels and are the main / root branches of a “Data Tree”. The data tree is then divided into smaller boxes that show the lower levels of the hierarchy. These rectangles are used to display datasets, where the goal is to “break down” the data into its constituent parts to quickly identify its larger and smaller components. For example, the following Treemap ranks Jamaica’s exports in 2017, separated by sector – chemicals, minerals, petroleum, agriculture, etc.

See also
Python NLP, NLP, Python NLP libraries
An example of Treemap. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Schneiderman’s art with authentic data

To draw his conclusions on data visualization using tree maps, Shneiderman used authentic data from the World Bank and explained how urban populations can be classified in different countries. It even gathered information on carbon emissions from the US Energy Information Administration and organized all the data across seven continents for display on a tree map. The size of the boxes in this illustration represents CO2 emissions, while the colors vary based on per capita CO2 emissions, writes Shneiderman in his book. He also used the Treemap to illustrate the audience engagement score for the TED talk. Sebastian Wernicke compiled the data for his TED talk titled “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics”. The colors of this specific Treemap attempted to show the variety of TED discussions.

The 12 Treemaps in modern art museums

His illustrations with real-time data bridge the gap between art and science and show that the two disciplines overlap in many cases. Many of Shneiderman’s works have found their way into modern art museums, the first being the University of Maryland, followed by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC, where a copy of Shneiderman’s Treemap is on display at the Keck Center. , as of October 2014. Another copy of the Treemap Art Project was on display at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Va., and then moved to Chevy Chase, Md., headquarters in 2016. Next is the Museum of Modern Art of New York, which received the 12 prints. of Shneiderman treemaps and have been preserved by the museum. The University of California, Irvine and the University of Swansea in the UK are also home to the Shneiderman treemaps.

The Treemap that Schneiderman designed with data on urban populations that he collected from the World Bank. Source: book by Ben Schneiderman

The University of Maryland, where Shneiderman is a professor, has also developed a tool to produce treemaps that can be downloaded and used. Treemaps are one of the most effective tools for understanding complex data. The concept aims to present bulk data in hierarchical models in a space-limited layout. The importance of this tool is its efficiency in using space and smart color mechanisms to generate a layout with rectangles that show variations in the data depending on their quantity. In a way, treemaps make it easier to interpret data by removing heavy text and replacing it with shapes and colors.


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Gourav Mishra

Gourav Mishra

I am a journalist. Photographer by passion and writer by profession, I like to write on various disciplines. Writing and words are my way of knowing the world in a transparent way. I’m here to bring nuances of tech to the world, while being a tech journalist at AIM.


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