Interactive visualization with Processing


In the previous lab assignment, we created a map of France that looked something like this:

La France

To do so, we saw how to:

  • Parse a data file and store it in an array
  • Re-map data items from one coordinate system to another
  • Draw different kinds of shapes, colors, and text to the screen

Today, we are going to extend the solution from the previous lab to add interaction. Be sure to test your application often, at minimum after each of the steps below.

Step 1: Filtering out small cities

Right now, we show all the data. For any large dataset, that might overwhelm the presentation to the user or be too slow to calculate. Let’s filter out the smaller cities.

  • In your main program, add a new global variable minPopulationToDisplay and set it to some value, say 10000.
  • Modify your drawing code such that it skips any cities below that threshold.
  • Use the text() function to display “Displaying populations above x” in the app window, where x is the population threshold you’ve chosen.

Step 2: Making the filtering interactive

Now, let’s give the user the ability to change the filtering threshold using the keyboard.

  • Create a keyPressed() function in your main program file.
  • Read the variables key or keycode to figure out which key has been pressed and update the population cutoff accordingly.
    • Hint: you probably want to change this threshold by multiplying or dividing it by a constant rather than incrementing or decrementing it.
  • Make sure you call redraw() at the end of the function so that Processing knows it needs to do so.

Step 3: Using the mouse

So far, the user has to have a pretty good knowledge of France and its geography to make sense of the map. Let’s add the ability to hover on top of a city with the mouse to show its name.

Getting mouse events

As a first step, let’s just make sure we can use the mouse. When the user moves the mouse, the system will notify your program using the mouseMoved() function. Let’s just display these coordinates to the console for now.

  • Add a mouseMoved() function to your main program file.
  • Use println() to show the mouse coordinates mouseX and mouseY to the console.

Implementing geometric picking

So far, so good. Let’s now associate these mouse coordinates with the places in our dataset. To do so, we’ll need to do something called picking: mapping the position of the cursor to the appropriate associate object (in our case, a Place).

  • Add a method boolean contains(int x, int y) to the Place class. This method should return true iff the x, y position (expressed in window coordinates) is contained within the displayed shape. Because this method links the user’s interactions to the data, it needs to be consistent with the Place’s drawing method. For example, if the place is drawn with a radius, r, then the contains() method should accept a tolerance of r (or better, r + 1 to give the user an extra pixel to hit).
  • In your main program file, add a method Place pick(int x, int y) that returns the Place below the given point. If there are multiple places, this should give the one that is drawn on top. If there is no place at that point, return null.
    • Hint: loop over the cities in the reverse order of how they were drawn to get the place that was drawn last.
  • Modify the mouseMoved() function to show the name of the city (if any) below the mouse cursor to the console.
  • Test the program, then modify the code such that the name of the current city is shown only once it changes. To do this, you can create a global variable to store the last picked place.

Step 5: Adding glossing

Now let’s make it so that the city under the cursor is highlighted.

  • Add a boolean variable highlighted to your Place class.
  • Modify the drawing method so that the color of the place is different when highlighted.
    • Hint: We saw in class that we shouldn’t use color to encode too many things at once. Is it really a good idea to use color to convey highlighting here? If you already use color as a visual variable, you should try a different highlighting effect (e.g., displaying an additional circle, changing the alpha (transparency) value of the color or using darker colors. See here about transparency and here on mixing colors).
  • In the mouseMoved() function in the main program, update the highlighted status of the place under the mouse, then call the redraw() method.
  • Test the program. There is one thing that we forgot to do. Can you spot it?

Step 6: Revealing city names

So far, we only show the name of the city on the Processing console. Let’s show that in the visualization.

  • Modify your Place’s drawing method such that the name of the city is displayed next to it whenever it is highlighted.
    • Hint: you will probably have to fiddle with things to get the alignment just right.
    • Hint 2: You can use the textAlign() function to adjust the vertical alignment.
  • Display a translucent rectangle below the text to make it easier to read.
    • Hint: use the textWidth() method to calculate the width of a text string.

Next steps (optional)

  • Add a selected boolean flag to the Place class. Whereas places are highlighted an unhighlighted as the mouse moves, a selection is toggled with a click.
  • Add a widget to the top of the window that shows the population range like an inverted progress bar.
    • Hint: use a log scale or a power scale.
  • Make this widget respond to mouse drags

For the ambitious…

  • Turn the population widget above into a range slider.
  • Show the distribution of cities inside the range slider, using either a histogram or a color map. (We will see these in a later class.)
  • Use excentric labelling to show the labels of overlapping cities.
  • Add support for panning and zooming.

Turning in your code

Your project is due before class on Dec 20.

  • Add a comment to the top of your main program file with your full name.
  • Create a README file (in plain text, PDF, or html) with instructions on how to use your program, the possible interactions, and how you chose to represent the data.
  • Add your README file to the project with Sketch > Add File.... This will put that file in your project’s data folder.
  • Use the File > Save As... command to save a copy of your project (called a Sketch in Processing) with your last name and first initial as its name. For example, mine would be named eaganj.
  • Use the Tools > Archive Sketch menu to create a .zip of your project.
  • Turn in your code to the labs 1 & 2 submission site.


The goal of this assignment is to explore how to create a visualization from data. Grading will thus be primarily in terms of the visualization you create. This is a visualization assignment (which uses programming), not a programming project. A good visualization with a messy implementation is better than a poor visualization with a good implementation. (A good visualization with a good implementation is even better.)

This assignment will be graded on a √+ / √ / √- scale. Any project turned in after the due date will receive the next lower grade if turned in up to 24 hours late, or a 0 thereafter.

Creative Commons License Assignment courtesy of Petra Isenberg, Jean-Daniel Fekete, Pierre Dragicevic and Frédéric Vernier under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.