Comics - are they just for fun? Perhaps they can also be a source of inspiration. If you think that xkcd provides some thought-provoking cartoons for our front page then you might not be so suprised to learn that one of them has sparked a new visualization techinque applied to big software projects.
Visualization is a difficult and growing problem. How do you convert the mass of data that is available on the web into something digestable that the average person can understand. It's not a purely technical problem in that you have to think up a really appropriate way to map the data to the visualization elements. In other words you need some inspiration.
Data visualization researcher Michale Ogawa was inspired by a page from the xkcd comic web site, yes the same xkcd that provides the cartoon on our front page, that showed a chart of how different characters in a movie came together, split up and generally interacted to create the factions that the movie documented - see the original chart. This was such a good idea that it must have other more serious applications and Ogawa realised that it could be used to plot the way developers grouped together to work on particular files in a project.
The technique, dubbed "Software Evolution Storylines", shows how several open source projects attracted additional supporters and how those supporters concentrated on different aspects of the project.
For example the plot of the Python project shows quite clearly how its originator Guido van Rossum worked alone for a long time and how the activity took off in around 2000.
It's not clear whether the insights into a project such a visualization provides could be fed back in to make anything better, or even different, but it's nice to know that xkcd not only inspired some serious work but that Ogawa was nice enough to give them some of the credit.
Now is there anything else in the cartoon archive, like a new quicksort or a faster fourier transform ... or even a way to really catch road runner?