Data2Vis: Automatic Generation of Data Visualizations Using Sequence-to-Sequence Recurrent Neural Networks

Data2Vis: Automatic Generation of Data Visualizations Using Sequence-to-Sequence Recurrent Neural Networks


Rapidly creating effective visualizations using expressive grammars is challenging for users who have limited time and limited skills in statistics and data visualization. Even high-level, dedicated visualization tools often require users to manually select among data attributes, decide which transformations to apply, and specify mappings between visual encoding variables and raw or transformed attributes.

In this paper, we introduce Data2Vis, a neural translation model, for automatically generating visualizations from given datasets. We formulate visualization generation as a sequence to sequence translation problem where data specifications are mapped to visualization specifications in a declarative language (Vega-Lite). To this end, we train a multilayered Long Short-Term Memory (LSTM) model with attention on a corpus of visualization specifications.

Qualitative results show that our model learns the vocabulary and syntax for a valid visualization specification, appropriate transformations (count, bins, mean) and how to use common data selection patterns that occur within data visualizations. Our model generates visualizations that are comparable to manually-created visualizations in a fraction of the time, with potential to learn more complex visualization strategies at scale.

Data2Vis: Automatic Generation of Data Visualizations Using Sequence-to-Sequence Recurrent Neural Networks

Victor Dibia
IBM Research
Çağatay Demiralp
IBM Research



Automated visualization design; neural machine translation; sequence to sequence models; deep learning; LSTM; Vega-Lite.

Users create data visualizations using a range of tools with a range of characteristics (Figure Data2Vis: Automatic Generation of Data Visualizations Using Sequence-to-Sequence Recurrent Neural Networks). Some of these tools are more expressive, giving expert users more control, while others are easier to learn and faster to create visualizations, appealing to general audiences. For instance, imperative APIs such as OpenGL and HTML Canvas provide greater expressivity and flexibility but require significant programming skills and effort. On the other hand, dedicated visual analysis tools and spreadsheet applications (e.g., Microsoft Excel, Google Spreadsheets) provide ease of use and speed in creating standard charts based on templates but offer limited expressivity and customization.

Declarative specification grammars such as ggplot2 [?], D3 [?], Vega [?], and Vega-Lite [?] provide a tradeoff between speed and expressivity. They are faster to use compared to imperative specifications but are limited in expressivity. However, these grammars also come with steep learning curves, can be tedious to specify depending on the syntax and abstraction level adopted, and can suffer from reusability issues. In fact, there is little known about the user experience with visualization grammars, beyond the degree with which they are used. For example, ggplot2 can be difficult for users who are not familiar with R. Vega, which is based on a JSON schema, can be tedious even for users who are familiar with JSON. Even tools with higher-level abstractions such as the ones based on chart templates often require the user to manually select among data attributes, decide which statistical computations to apply, and specify mappings between visual encoding variables and either the raw data or the computational summaries. This task can be daunting with large datasets especially for typical users who have limited time and limited skills in statistics and data visualization.

Figure \thefigure: Axis of visualization specification. Data visualizations are created with a spectrum of tools with a spectrum of speed and expressivity. Some of these tools are faster to create visualizations, others are more expressive [?].

To address these challenges, researchers have proposed techniques and tools to automate designing effective visualizations [?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?] and guide users in visual data exploration [?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?].

Prior techniques and tools for automated visualization design and visualization recommendation are based on rules and heuristics. The need to explicitly enumerate rules or heuristics limits the application scalability of these approaches and does not take advantage of expertise codified within existing visualization data. Automated and guided visualization design and exploration can significantly benefit from implicitly learning these rules from examples (i.e., data), effectively incorporating both data and visualization design context.

In this work, we formulate visualization design as a sequence to sequence translation problem. To operationalize our formulation, we train an LSTM-based neural translation model (Data2Vis) on a corpus of Vega-Lite visualization specifications, taking advantage of Vega-Lite’s (and of similar grammars’) design motivation to support programmatic generation. We demonstrate the model’s use in automatically generating visualizations with applications in democratizing the visualization authoring process for novice users and helping more experienced users jump start visualization design. Our contributions include 1) formulating visualization design as a sequence to sequence translation problem, 2) demonstrating its viability by training a sequence-to-sequence model, Data2Vis, on a relatively small training dataset and then effectively generating visualizations of test data, and 3) integrating Data2Vis into a web-based application that has been made publicly available at Our work is the first in applying deep neural translation to visualization generation and has important implications for future work, opening the way to implicitly learn visualization design and visual analysis rules from examples at scale.

In the following, we first summarize related work followed by details of the Data2Vis model and its training process. We then present our results,providing several visualization examples automatically generated using the trained model. Next we discuss the potential impact of Data2Vis and its current limitations and provide an agenda for future work. We conclude by summarizing our contributions and insights.

Our work is related to earlier efforts in effective visualization specification, automated visualization design, and deep neural networks (DNNs) for synthesis and machine translation.

Earlier data visualization work proposes grammars and algebraic operators over data as well as visual encoding and design variables to specify visualizations (Figure Data2Vis: Automatic Generation of Data Visualizations Using Sequence-to-Sequence Recurrent Neural Networks). Wilkinson ’s seminal work [?] introduces a grammar of graphics and its implementation (VizML), greatly shaping the subsequent research on visualization specification. Polaris [?] (now called Tableau) uses a table algebra drawn from Wilkinson’s grammar of graphics. The table algebra of Polaris later evolved to VizQL [?], forming the underlying representation of Tableau visualizations. Wickham introduces ggplot2 [?], a widely-popular package in the R statistical language, based on Wilkinson’s grammar. Similarly, Protovis [?], D3 [?], Vega [?], Brunel [?], and Vega-Lite [?] all provide grammars to declaratively specify visualizations. Some of them require more complete specifications than others. For instance, Protovis, D3 and Vega support finer control over visualization specification with incurred cost of verbosity. Satranarayan et al. [?] introduce Vega-Lite (Figure Data2Vis: Automatic Generation of Data Visualizations Using Sequence-to-Sequence Recurrent Neural Networks) as a strict subset of Vega, a JSON schema based grammar, to facilitate clarity and conciseness with some loss in expressivity. We train our model on a Vega-Lite corpus provided by [?], which contains datasets and corresponding visualizations specified using Vega-Lite.

Figure \thefigure: A Vega-Lite specification (left) and the generated visualization (right). Users can succinctly specify complex selections, transformations and interactions using the Vega-Lite grammar formatted in JSON  [?].

Declarative grammars eschew chart templates typically used in dedicated visualization tools or spreadsheet applications such as Microsoft Excel and Google Spreadsheets, which have limited support for customization. Conversely, these grammars facilitate expressivity by enabling a combinatorial composition of low-level building blocks introduced by Wilkinson such as graphical marks, scales, visual encoding variables, and guides. Increased expressivity comes at the cost of degrading the speed with which visualizations can be created, incurs a learning curve, and decreases the number of users who can effectively use the specification method to create visualizations. One of our aims with Data2Vis is to bridge this gap between the speed and expressivity in specifying visualizations.

Prior work proposes desiderata and tools (e.g., [?, ?, ?, ?, ?]) to automatically design effective visualizations, building on Bertin’s study [?] of visual encoding variables and earlier graphical perception research, e.g.,  [?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?]. Earlier research also develops interactive systems and recommendation schemes [?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?] to guide users in exploratory data analysis and visualization design. GrandTour [?], PRIM-9 [?], SeeDB [?], Zenvisage [?], ShowMe [?], Voyager [?], Voyager 2 [?], SAGE [?] and VizDeck [?] prioritize charts according to one or more evaluation measures such as data saliency, data coverage, perceptual effectiveness, user task, and user preferences. Similarly, Rank-by-Feature [?], AutoVis [?], and Foresight [?] use statistical criteria over data attributes and instances in recommending and ranking visualizations. Data2Vis exhibits a departure from rule-based or heuristic-based approaches of prior work both in conceptual formulation and technical approach taken. The Data2Vis learns how to create visualization specifications from good examples without retorting to enumeration of rules or heuristics, complementing earlier work. The Data2Vis model can be integrated into existing higher-level recommendation systems of visual data exploration and used in tandem with rule-based techniques to drive these systems.

Prior deep neural network (DNN) research studies adopt generative approaches to learn human-like cognitive and creative capabilities. Examples include the use of models to synthesize music, drawings, images from textual descriptions, code from hand-drawn sketches or interface screenshots. Ha et al. [?] train a recurrent neural network (RNN) to predict and generate stroke-based drawings of common objects. Reed et al.  [?] present a deep neural network architecture and GAN formulation to “translate” textual visual concepts to pixels. Others learn how to generate code from user interface screenshots [?] and how to compose music using purely sequential models [?, ?] and cascading a sequential model with a restricted Boltzman machine [?]. All these approaches aim to simplify the creative process for both novices and experts. In this sense, our work here shares a motivation similar to prior work. We also use a variation of sequential neural network models, a sequence-to-sequence generative model, to generate visualization specifications from datasets.

Figure \thefigure: Data2Vis is a sequence to sequence model with encoder-decoder architecture and attention module. Source and target tokens are character token representations of the source and target data respectively.

Recent work introduces deep neural network models, e.g.,  [?, ?, ?, ?, ?] that significantly improves [?, ?, ?, ?] the performance of machine translation systems, surpassing the preceding phrase-based approaches. Deep neural translation models eschew hand engineering the features, in large part, by using large training data, enabling the end-to-end learning in practice. Sequence-to-sequence models (e.g.,  [?, ?]) are a particularly successful and popular class of deep learning models applied in machine translation (see  [?] for an evaluation of alternative architectures). Akin to autoencoders, sequence-to-sequence models have also a symmetric, encoder-decoder architecture. Sequence-to-sequence models models are composed of encoder-decoder layers which consist of recurrent neural networks (RNNs) and an attention mechanism that aligns target tokens with source tokens.

Building on these ideas that leverage generative models, we formulate the data visualization problem as a sequence-to-sequence translation problem, which can be readily addressed using sequence-to-sequence models (seq2seq)  [?, ?, ?]. Our input sequence is a dataset set and our output sequence is a valid Vega-Lite specification. Seq2seq models have been applied with great success within problems where a target sequence needs to be generated conditioned on some source sequence. Examples areas include neural machine translation  [?, ?, ?, ?], neural conversation modeling, text summarization, image captioning etc.

Seq2seq models are trained using embeddings of the source and target tokens which can be generated based on words or subword units or per character. In this work, we select per character tokenization given our source and target sequences consist of symbols as opposed to learnable word groups seen in related problems like language translation.

Our model (Figure Data2Vis: Automatic Generation of Data Visualizations Using Sequence-to-Sequence Recurrent Neural Networks) is based on an encoder-decoder architecture with attention mechanism which has been previously applied to the problem of neural machine translation  [?, ?, ?]. The encoder is a bidirectional RNN which takes in an input sequence of source tokens and generates a sequence of states . The decoder is an RNN which computes the probability of a target sequence based on the hidden state . The probability of each token in the target sequence is generated based on the recurrent state of the decoder RNN, previous tokens in the target sequence and a context vector . The context vector (also called the attention vector) is a weighted average of the source states and designed to capture source side information that help predict the current target token.

For our experiment, we use a 2 layer bidirectional RNN encoder and a 2 layer RNN decoder. 256 unit LSTM cells are used in both the encoder and decoder following results that demonstrate they outperform other RNN cells such as GRU cells  [?].

To generate plausible visualizations conditioned on a given source dataset, our model should achieve several learning objectives. First, the model must select a subset of fields to focus on when creating visualizations (most datasets have multiple fields which cannot all be simultaneously visualized). Next, the model must learn differences in data types across the fields in a dataset (numeric, string, ordinal, categorical etc) which in turn guides how each field is specified in the generation of a visualization specification. Finally, the model must learn the appropriate transformations to apply to a field given its data type (e.g. aggregate transform does not apply to string fields). In our case, this includes view-level transforms (aggregate, bin, calculate, filter, timeUnit) and field level transforms (aggregate, bin, sort, timeUnit) supported by the Vega-Lite grammar.

Effectively learning these objectives as they map from source to target using a character based sequence model can be resource intensive. While character based models results in smaller vocabulary size and are more accurate for specialized domains, they also present challenges - a character tokenization strategy requires more units to represent a sequence and requires a large amount of hidden layers as well as parameters to model long term dependencies  [?]. To address this issue and scaffold the learning process, we perform a set of transformations. First, we replace string and numeric field names using a short notation - "str" and "num" in the source sequence (dataset). Next, a similar backward transformation (post processing) is replicated in the target sequence to maintain consistency in field names. (see Figure Data2Vis: Automatic Generation of Data Visualizations Using Sequence-to-Sequence Recurrent Neural Networks). These transformations help scaffold the learning process by reducing the vocabulary size, and prevents the LSTM from learning field names (as we observed in early experiments). In turn we are able to reduce the overall source and target sequence length, reduce training time and reduce the number of hidden layers which the model needs to converge.

Figure \thefigure: Transformations for source and target sequences. Note that this is done at training and inference time. Both sequences are also in the JSON file format.

Our training dataset is constructed from 4300 automatically generated Vega-Lite examples, based on 11 distinct datasets. The dataset was originally compiled by [?] where the authors use Voyager [?] to generate charts with 1-3 variables, filtered to remove problematic instances. The dataset contains charts with 6 different types of visualizations (area, bar, circle, line, point, tick) and three different transforms (aggregate, bin, timeUnit)(see Figure Data2Vis: Automatic Generation of Data Visualizations Using Sequence-to-Sequence Recurrent Neural Networks). We iteratively generate a source (a single row from the dataset) and target (the Vega-Lite spec in the example) pair (see Figure Data2Vis: Automatic Generation of Data Visualizations Using Sequence-to-Sequence Recurrent Neural Networks) from each example file. Each example is sampled 50 times (50 different data rows with the same Vega-Lite spec) resulting in a total of 215000 pairs which are then used to train our model.

Figure \thefigure: Distribution of the visualizations types and transforms used within our training examples.

We begin by generating a character vocabulary for our source and target sequences (84 and 45 symbols). A dropout rate of 0.5 is applied at the input of each cell and a maximum source and target sequence length of 500 is used. The entire model is then trained end-to-end (fixed learning rate of 0.0001 and Adam optimizer) minimizing the negative log likelihood of the target characters using stochastic gradient descent. Our code implementation is adapted from an open source neural machine translation framework provided by Britz et al. [?]. We train our model for a total of 20,000 steps and final loss of 0.02.

Figure \thefigure: Web application interface for Data2Vis qualitative evaluation. (a) A user can either load a random dataset from the RDdataset collection or paste a dataset (JSON format) and select "Generate". (b) Data2Vis generates a Vega-Lite specification based on the dataset. (c) Finally, the user can modify the Vega-Lite specification and update the visualization.
Figure \thefigure: Examples of visualizations where the model has learned common selection patterns and leverages concepts such as responses (yes, no) and sex (male, female).
Figure \thefigure: Examples where the model has learned to generate univariate plots that summarize fields selected from the dataset.
Figure \thefigure: A collection of random examples generated by the model conditioned on some test dataset. These examples demonstrate initial results on the model’s capabilities in generating plausible visualizations

 and its current limitations ( phantom variables



Quantifying the performance of a generative model can be challenging. Following existing literature  [?, ?, ?], we explore a qualitative evaluation of the model’s output. To evaluate the model, we use the Rdataset repository 111 Rdatasets is a collection of 1147 datasets originally distributed alongside the statistical software environment R and some of its add-on packages. (cleaned and converted to a valid JSON format) which was not included in our training. Figure Data2Vis: Automatic Generation of Data Visualizations Using Sequence-to-Sequence Recurrent Neural Networks shows visualizations generated from 24 randomly selected datasets in the Rdataset collection. The range of valid univariate and multivariate visualizations produced suggests the model captures aspects of the visualization generation process. As training progresses, the model incrementally learns the vocabulary and syntax for valid Vega-Lite specifications, learning to use quotes, brackets, symbols and keywords. The model also appears to have learned to use the right type of variable specifications in the Vega-Lite grammar (e.g. it correctly assigns a string type for text fields and a quantitative for numeric fields). Qualitative results also suggest the use of appropriate transformations (bins, aggregate) on appropriate fields (e.g. means are performed on numeric fields). The model also learns about common data selection patterns that occur within visualizations and their combination with other variables to create bivariate plots. As experts create visualizations, it is common to group data by geography (country, state, sex), characteristics of individuals (citizenship status, marital status, sex) etc. Early results suggests that our model begins to learn these patterns and apply them in its generation of visualizations. For example, it learns to subset data using common ordinal fields such as responses (yes/no), sex (male/female) etc and plots these values against other fields (Figure Data2Vis: Automatic Generation of Data Visualizations Using Sequence-to-Sequence Recurrent Neural Networks). Finally, in all cases, the model generates a perfectly valid JSON file and valid Vega-Lite specification with some minor failure cases (Figure Data2Vis: Automatic Generation of Data Visualizations Using Sequence-to-Sequence Recurrent Neural Networks


To further evaluate the utility of our model, we developed a web application prototype interface (Figure Data2Vis: Automatic Generation of Data Visualizations Using Sequence-to-Sequence Recurrent Neural Networks) that supports the use case of an analyst exploring data similar to  [?, ?]. The interface supports 3 primary interactions - data import, visualization generation and visualization update. First, the analyst is able to import a dataset into the application. They can do this by using the “load dataset” button which loads a randomly selected dataset from the Rdataset repository or they can directly paste a JSON data array in the provided text field. Next, the analyst can select the “generate” button which submits the dataset to our model, receives a Vega-Lite specification (placed in a text field) and renders the plot. Finally, the analyst can update to the generated specification by modifying the Vega-Lite specification and selecting the “update visualization” button to render a updated specification. We showed this early prototype to two visualization researchers and they were able to quickly build on the specifications generated by the model, making changes to field selections and transformations.

We presented the very first attempt to transform data to visualizations using a deep neural network, applying a neural machine translation (seq2seq) model in automating visualization generation. Below, we discuss the potential impact of our approach and limitations of the current Data2Vis model along with future research directions.

Democratizing Visualization Authoring

Providing users with little or no programming experience with the ability to rapidly create expressive data visualizations empowers users and brings data visualization into their personal workflow. Data2Vis holds potential to significantly enable these groups by providing visualizations that help them see their own data, and create visualizations they can share with others. These benefits can serve to make data visualization more accessible, speed-up the visualization authoring process and augment the visualization capabilities of all users.

Accelerating Data Exploration and Discovery For visualization experts, it is likely that visualizations created by Data2Vis may be insufficient for their needs. This is especially true when the structure of the data being analyzed is unknown or unusual and effective exploration of the data requires complex transforms as well as deep domain expertise. However, Data2Vis can contribute to this process by “jumpstarting” the visualization—first by generating a valid visualization specification and seeding the creation process with an initial visualization. Analysts can initialize their visualization tasks with Data2Vis and iteratively correct its content while generating intermediate visualizations.

Phantom Variable The current version of our model has several limitations which occur in about 15-20% of runs. First, the model occasionally selects what we refer to as a phantom field (a field that does not exist in the input dataset) as part of the visualization spec it generates (Figure Data2Vis: Automatic Generation of Data Visualizations Using Sequence-to-Sequence Recurrent Neural Networks). While plots are still realized in some cases despite this error (Vega lite incorporates good defaults), the affected axis is not interpretable. Another limitation of the model is observed within its selection of fields to visualize - it occasionally chooses to visualize fields that are unintuitive or have little information value. For example a frequency plot of grouped longitude and latitude values does not provide much information. Finally, the model generates relatively simple visualizations - univariate plots (which can serve as data field summaries) and bivariate plots. It is unable to apply complex transforms, use multiple variables (as seen in stacked bar charts, concurrent charts or segmented charts with fields assigned to visual cues such as color) or create interactive visualizations.

Training Data While further experimentation is required, our intuition is that the limitations mentioned above reflect limitations in both the size and diversity of our training data. Our goal with Data2Vis was to evaluate the viability of generative models in automated data visualization and to this end, we have conducted our experiments with a relatively small dataset (4300 examples upsampled to 215,000 training pairs). While our current results provide insights, we believe a larger and more diversified training dataset will improve learning and model generalization. Another limitation with our training data is related to our training pair generation strategy. Currently, we construct our source tokens from a single row from a dataset which is then preprocessed before training. While this approach shortens the input sequence length and enables us train our model, the model can only learn properties of each field (e.g. length, content, numeric type, string type) as opposed to properties of the distribution of the field (e.g mean, range, categories etc.) which encode useful signals for data visualization.

Eliciting More Training Data Naturally, addressing limitations with our training data constitutes the next step for future work. We plan to conduct a large scale structured data collection aimed at generating visualization examples across a large number of datasets, visualization types (bar, point, area, chart etc), transforms, complexity (number of variables), interactions and visualization languages. We will also explore strategies to improve the training process that guide the model towards learning properties of the distribution for a given field.

Extending Data2Vis to Generate Multiple Plausible Visualizations Data2Vis is currently implemented as a sequence-to-sequence translation model. Sequence models work very well for domains where it is desirable to have fixed mappings of input sequences to output sequences (text summarization, image captioning, language translation, etc). It is expected that a sentence in one language always maps to the same sentence in a different language, and acceptable if a passage always maps to the same summary or an image to the same caption. However, when applied to the task of data visualization, it is desirable that input data maps to multiple valid visualizations conditioned on a random variable or on input from a user. Thus, another avenue for future work is to explore the design of conditioned sequence models that enable such one to many sequence mappings between data and visualization specifications.

Targeting Additional Grammars Building on results from Data2Vis, important next steps also include efforts to train models that can map input data to multiple different visualization specification languages, including ggplot2, given a dataset. This line of research may also explore training models that learn direct mappings between visualization specification languages. These models hold potential in making visualizations more accessible by enabling visualization specification reuse across languages, platforms and systems.

Natural Language and Visualization Specification We propose the exploration of models that generate visualizations conditioned on natural language text in addition to datasets. A potential approach is to first explore how users might describe or express visualizations for a given dataset and use this knowledge in the generation of triples—natural language sequence, data sequence and visualization specification. These data points can then be leveraged in training a model that learns to generate visualizations based on natural language descriptions. These models hold potential to extend the expressive capabilities for existing systems that integrate multimodal interactions and visualizations for exploring data (e.g. [?]). Conversely, we can use textual descriptions of visualizations to automatically generate captions for them, akin to image caption generation (e.g.,  [?, ?, ?]).

The history of data visualization is rich with work that treats visualization from a linguistic perspective. Bertin systematized data visualization as “a language for the eye” [?]. Adopting Bertin’s analogy, Mackinlay [?] viewed visualizations as sentences of a graphical language and formalized a model based on “effectiveness” and “efficiency” criteria, borrowing concepts from formal languages. Subsequent research also introduced various “grammars” of visualization specification.

We significantly extend this earlier perspective and formulate data visualization as a sequence to sequence translation problem where we translate data specifications to visualization specifications. We train a deep sequence-to-sequence model and demonstrate its efficacy generating univariate plots (which can serve as data summaries), and bivariate plots which leverage similarities across datasets and data fields. We also identify initial failure conditions, offer ideas for their remediation and an agenda for future work.

It is our belief that the problem formulation and model presented in this work represents an appropriate baseline for future work in automated generation of visualizations using deep learning approaches. Our approach sets the stage for systems that learn to generate visualizations at scale with implications for the development of guided visual data exploration systems.

We thank the authors of [?] for making the Vega-Lite corpus available.

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