Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Protovis: data visualization in the browser

The Javascript world keeps getting cooler. What with JITting VMs like Google's V8 and Mozilla's JaegerMonkey, frameworks like prototype and jQuery, and an effort towards a standard library (commonjs), javascript is looking more and more like a respectable programming language.

The visualization toolkit Protovis is a taste of things to come. Check out the super-slick examples. One of the framework's creators, Jeffrey Heer, is also the designer of two other visualization toolkits, Prefuse for Java and Flare for Flash and also wrote a nice paper about Software Design Patterns for Information Visualization. In, Protovis: A Graphical Toolkit for Visualization, Heer and coauthor Michael Bostock explain that Protovis is aimed at a niche somewhere between point-and-click chart making programs like Excel and direct manipulation of vector graphic primitives as in Processing.

At heart, Protovis is a small domain specific language for charting. Javascript works surprisingly well as a host language. Like other DSLs, they use method chaining, where methods return the object they were called on, allowing the next method call to be tacked right on. If this isn't familiar, think of StringBuilder in Java.


(stolen from the Protovis docs.)

var vis = new pv.Panel()

    .data([1, 1.2, 1.7, 1.5, .7])
    .height(function(d) d * 80)
    .left(function() this.index * 25);


The way they've implemented “smart properties” is particularly clever. Property accessors accept either constant values or functions. The assignment of height of bars in the bar-graph example above is done this way. Marks (the protovis term for any graphical element) are associated with arrays of data. A pv.Bar, given a 5 element array, draws 5 bars. We've defined height to be a function of d. So, for each element d in the data array, we get a bar of height d * 80. This is a pleasantly seamless mixture of OO and functional constructs which also brings in something of the flavor of vectorized operations in R.

If you like reading code, the Protovis code is very nicely laid out and makes elegant use of Javascript's quirky set of language features.

Browsing genomes

I hacked up a quick test, which is (what else?) a genome browser. Looks pretty good for a dirt-simple hundred or so lines of code. Note that my quick hack loads up about 8MB of data, which will take some time over slow connections.

One bummer is that Protovis doesn't work in current versions of IE. Still, it works nicely in Firefox and Safari and is especially snappy in Chrome. It sounds as if IE support might happen soon.

For more on Protoviz, check out Robert Kosara's A Protovis Primer.

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