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Per definition, data visualization can only begin when data exists — it is limited to the domain of symbolic information. This full paper presented at IEEE VIS 2019 discusses why the field should also consider forms of data that are not symbolically encoded, including physical traces and material indicators. Continuing a provocation presented by Pat Hanrahan in his 2004 IEEE Vis capstone address, this paper compares physical traces to visualizations and describes the techniques and visual practices for producing, revealing, and interpreting them. By contrasting information visualization with a speculative counter model of autographic visualization, this paper examines the design principles for material data. Autographic visualization addresses limitations of information visualization, such as the inability to directly reflect the material circumstances of data generation. The comparison between the two models allows probing the epistemic assumptions behind information visualization and uncovers linkages with the rich history of scientific visualization and trace reading.

Read a summary of the research in the online data visualization journal Multiple Views. You can download the full paper at arxiv and examine its practical implications in two art projects, Dustmark and Ozone Tattoo.