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Tableau and the Grammar of Graphics

The first edition of Lee Wilkinson’s book, The Grammar of Graphics came out in 1999. Whether or not you’ve heard of the book, if you’re an R user you’ve almost certainly indirectly heard about the concept, because . . . you know ggplot2? What do you think the “gg” in ggplot2 stands for? That’s right!

Then in 2002 Chris Stolte, Diane Tang, and Pat Hanrahan of Stanford University published an article, Polaris: A System for Query, Analysis, and Visualization of Multidimensional Relational Databases, where they cite The Grammar of Graphics:

Wilkinson [41] recently developed a comprehensive language for describing traditional statistical graphics and proposed a simple interface for generating a subset of the specifications expressible within his language. We have extended Wilkinson’s ideas to develop a specification that can be directly mapped to an interactive interface and that is tightly integrated with the relational data model. . . .

The primary distinctions between Wilkinson’s system and ours arise because of differences in the data models. We chose to focus on developing a tool for multidimensional relational databases . . . The differences in design are most apparent in the table algebra . . .

Shortly afterward, this work was developed into Tableau:

In 2003 Tableau spun out of Stanford University with VizQL™, a technology that completely changes working with data by allowing simple drag and drop functions to create sophisticated visualizations. The fundamental innovation is a patented query language that translates your actions into a database query and then expresses the response graphically.

Both ggplot2 and Tableau have become very successful, the first as freeware and the second as a commercial product. The documentation for ggplot2 (as well as its name) very clearly cite the Grammar of Graphics. It would be good if Tableau did this also.

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