Letter Writing Meets Big Data in 'Dear Data'

Dear Data (Princeton Architectural Press)
Dear Data (Princeton Architectural Press)

In the world before ours, before our texts, emails, 140-character thoughts, before we could have conversations with long-distance loves during a morning commute, in that world, communication was something different, something more challenging. I’d hesitate to call it more meaningful—there can be meaning in even the shortest hello if we want there to be—but there is something more, let’s call it more purposeful, in the act of communication in a pre-electronic world.

Researcher William Decker describes how reading pre-telecommunication letters “requires acts of imagination and empathy, but even casual attention to their commonplace expressions reveals a sense of space and time different from our own.” To sit, to write, to send your thoughts to someone and wait, patiently, while your letters finds its way, and to play this process out in reverse while you await response requires an amount of purpose that we may have lost in an instant-communication world. But there’s something more to Decker’s statement, the idea that reading this pre-electronic letter writing reveals something unknown to a modern reader. We get a glimpse of something new; words we may not have known, a voice we can’t imagine, a new way of thinking, a different way of seeing. We are experiencing their world through ours, and perhaps even seeing our world slightly differently.

In their new book, Dear Data (Princeton Architectural Press), designers Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec are seeing their worlds in new ways. The book, a collection of postcards the two sent to each other over the course of a year, explores the very mundane data of our lives: drinking (Week 18), complaints (Week 7), swearing (Week 37), or times we wish for privacy (Week 51), and beautifully visualizes them.

From Dear Data website


As the two write in the book’s introduction, “We would spend the week noticing and noting down our activities or thoughts, before translating this information into a hand-drawn visualization.” Through the process of examining their worlds in new ways, and noting emotions, sounds, and thoughts Lupi and Posavec, like the pre-telecommunication era Decker writes about, reveal a sense of space and time that we’d never considered. Through their weekly postcard exchange the two got to know each other, and themselves. The world around them was data to be collected, to be examined. They continue:

Besides finding data in the world around us, we are all creating data just by living: our purchases, our movements through the city, our explorations across the internet, all contribute to the “data trail” we leave in our wake as we move through life.

Lupi and Posavec’s explorations are alternatively funny (Posavec’s strategy for remembering the animals she spotted on her bike ride ending in a shouted “Give me my PHONE!”) and vulnerable (Lupi’s privacy week postcard, presented as a sort of erasure poem— the absence of words adding weight to the revealed ones), and at all times thoughtful. In an era where our personal data is constantly being amassed, studied, packaged, and sold back to us as ads, initiatives, or motivators there is something very powerful about taking it back. And not just taking it back in the way that wearable technology promises to quantify our lives, but taking it back in quiet, tactile, and let’s not forget, analog ways.

Dear Data is a nice reminder that even in this hyper-technological, ever-connected world, there is a beauty and simplicity in returning to a way of connecting that both roots us to our world and to one another.

DataMatters Interview Series: Biome Arts

Biome Arts started the way that many things do—by asking questions. What would happen if we combined this with that? What would happen if I bring my talents into your field? And in the case of Biome Arts, what would happen if we bring the visual, the digital, the sonic, and the sociopolitical into our art practices? What could we create then? The Biome Arts collective was founded in 2014 by Sally Bozzuto, Saito Group, and Chihao Yo and brings together writers, artists, designers, engineers, architects, and activists whose work speaks to the ways that art, technology, and social justice intersect.

The result of the collective’s collaborations has been two large-scale installations that live at the junction of technology, art, and activism. Their first project was Eco_Hack 2014, which included the structure The Forest Pavilion. This structure served as a multimedia gathering and performance space that also housed several interactive, immersive digital and data art installations.

This year, the team is back with Eco_Hack 2016. They are in the process of constructing Greenhouse Theater aboard the floating food-forest and art installation, Swale. This space, like The Forest Pavilion, will function as a central hub on the project and will also serve as the data center for the space collecting, visualizing, and projecting data gathered from the plants growing aboard.

I met with four of the members of the collective to talk about their upcoming project, data privacy, and how they’ve melded technology, activism, and art into their practices.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Continue reading “DataMatters Interview Series: Biome Arts”

DataMatters Interview Series: InvestigateWest's Lee van der Voo

Data is changing our world. It’s changing the way we make sense of the world, the way we interact with one another, and the way we work. Arguably, there’s been no field as affected by the changes in data accessibility, management, and presentation as journalism. Where data sources used to be row upon row of file cabinets, they have now become row upon row of Excel spreadsheets, and what those spreadsheets have become is a story. Those data sources, and the all of the visual and interactive ways they’re presented, have become a way for people to engage with news and better understand its effect on their lives. News consumers have begun to expect dynamic storytelling that uses the rapidly growing amount of technology to breathe life into stories, and journalism is responding.

I spoke to Portland, Oregon-based journalist Lee Van der Voo, who also serves as the Managing Director of the non-profit journalism organization InvestigateWest about open data, journalism’s approaches to technology, and how data-driven journalism is helping us “get at deeper truths about the world.”

Continue reading “DataMatters Interview Series: InvestigateWest's Lee van der Voo”

A New Name, a New Mission

CDA-02-tagThere have been a few changes happening that we’re excited to share. Parsons Institute for Information Mapping is now known as the Center for Data Arts. With this new name comes a revitalized mission that is focused, more than ever, on our commitment to pioneering radical new techniques for transforming data into meaningful narrative experiences. Part of this change comes from the appointment of our new director, artist and designer Ben Rubin, who we were thrilled to welcome aboard in January of this year. Ben will be building on our history of innovation, developing a new world-class laboratory for information design, visualization, critical thinking, and experimental data art practice.

From the Provost’s Office announcement:

This appointment, the result of an extensive international search, will revitalize the center’s mission, emphasizing public programs and new research collaborations with faculty and students across the university. “We are increasingly digitizing our actions and ourselves, and that data is changing our lives,” says Ben. “The Center for Data Arts will be a laboratory for inventing new ways to perceive and engage with data, as well as an intellectual hub for discussions about the new roles information plays in society.”

Ben is an internationally renowned artist whose work centers on critical encounters with data. His pieces incorporate information from literary works, legal documents, news, financial data, and other traces of human communication, recasting these data streams into immersive installations. His commissioned work includes the Public Theater’s site-specific sculpture Shakespeare Machine; And That’s the Way It Is for the University of Texas, Austin; and (with Mark Hansen) Moveable Type, for the lobby of the New York Times Building, and two editions of Listening Post, which were acquired by the London Science Museum and the San Jose Museum of Art. Ben’s artwork was recognized with a Webby Award in 2003, the 2004 Golden Nica Prize from Ars Electronica, the 2012 PAD Award for achievement in the field of public art, a Design Excellence Award from the New York City Design Commission in 2013, and an Obie Award in 2014.

With this new direction comes a few other changes; under a grant awarded by PressForward, an open-source software initiative housed at George Mason University, CDA is part of an 11-partner pilot program aimed at expanding the reach of scholarly work. Under this award, we launched our blog, and will revamp our quarterly publication, the Journal for Data Arts (formally Parsons Journal for Information Mapping).

We’re excited about our new direction and all of the possibilities ahead. Please check out our new website to learn more about our future plans.




Cover Story

MIT PressWe’re pleased to announce that CDA Director Ben Rubin’s piece “Listening Post” is gracing the cover of the upcoming release Information (MIT Press) edited by Sara Cook. Continue reading “Cover Story”

New York City's Rising Sea Levels, Visualized

New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation website notes:

“New York has experienced at least a foot of sea-level rise since 1900, mostly due to expansion of warming ocean water. Certain conditions along New York’s coast make sea-level rise here somewhat higher than the global average.”

Scientists project that  by 2100, our sea levels will be anywhere from 18 to 50 inches higher along the coastlines. It’s not so much a matter of if, but when and how much.

Landscape MetricsA recent CityLab article outlines the ways that data visualization is helping New York City respond to these changes. The rising sea levels are a particularity pressing issue here in the city, as noted in the article:

A 5-foot rise would affect nearly 1,500,000 people and 350 schools. [. . .] A new interactive visualization by Landscape Metrics illustrates exactly what that means for the city’s residents and its infrastructure.



Using data from data from the 2010 Census, the National Elevation Dataset, and the NYC Selected Facilities and Program Sites datasets, Landscape Metrics created interactive maps to visualize the impact of rising sea levels on New York City. The maps track the impact of the rising waters on people, schools, transportation, and waste treatment. Put simply, the higher the water, the higher the impact.

So what does this mean for the city? Is our infrastructure prepared for these changes? The city is a part of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which looks at how cities can respond to, not just disasters, but economics, transportation, and environmental issues. The initiative is looking at financial as well as design solutions for this problem. In the end, clear visualizations of the problem can help our government and our citizens realize that solutions need to be found. CityLab spoke to 100 Resilient Cities president Michael Berkowitz:

“[C]ities are piloting different solutions to different problems all the time.” The hope now is that these city-driven solutions are readily accepted and implemented in time.


High Tech Meets High Fashion

l1Ni1rE5At our visit from IBM Watson specialist Armen Pischdotchian last month, we learned about all the ways that cognitive computing was changing our world. And while Armen was pretty thorough in his workshop, we were still surprised to see Watson on the red carpet. But there it was, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual gala, in the form of a “cognitive dress” designed in partnership with Marchesa. The designers used  the technology to create a dress embedded with color-shifting LEDs that responded to followers emotions.

From Quartz:

Prior to the gala, Watson analyzed Marchesa’s social media to translate followers’ sentiments into colors. It turned emotions into information, and created a color palette for the LEDs from that analysis. In real-time during the gala, Watson processed the huge volume of tweets surrounding the event, and changed the color of the dress according to the emotions in them. Rose signified joy, coral meant passion, aqua was excitement, lavender denoted curiosity, and butter indicated encouragement.

The project, which IBM describes as “a partnership between man and machine” required Marchesa designers to feed hundreds of images to Watson; the technology responded with suggestions for design and color. In the past, Watson’s forays into fashion have mostly been on the back-end, helping brands like North Face and Melborne Fashion Week better serve the needs of their customers, so this shift to the design side of things marks an interesting shift.

We are constantly quantifying our days-our steps, our sleep patterns. To that end, this dress feels like a natural extension of that; another way to make sense of the flow of information that washes over us. Data has always been at its best when it’s telling a story, when it’s something more than charts and numbers, so the blend of data visualization, fashion, and emotion seems natural in a way. It’s another story to tell. I suppose that we can’t know right now just what story partnerships like this will be telling in the future.

Issey Miyake (Japanese, born 1938) for Miyake Design Studio (Japanese, founded 1970) "Flying Saucer" dress, spring/summer 1994 Courtesy of The Miyake Issey Foundation Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope
Issey Miyake (Japanese, born 1938) for Miyake Design Studio (Japanese, founded 1970)
“Flying Saucer” dress, spring/summer 1994
Courtesy of The Miyake Issey Foundation
Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 02:  Karolina Kurkova attends the "Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology" Costume Institute Gala at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY – MAY 02: Karolina Kurkova attends the “Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology” Costume Institute Gala at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Immersive Video for All

surround-360-insideYou wouldn’t happen to be in the market for a video camera that films in 360-degrees and produces video that can be viewed in VR headsets and on any number of other screens you might have handy? You are? Well, good news. At the F8 conference for Facebook developers, the company announced the Surround360. Wired Magazine describes it:

Built from off-the-shelf hardware worth roughly $30,000, this black circular camera—with its 17 evenly spaced lenses—looks kinda like the flying droid that descends onto the ice planet at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back (though it lacks those insect-like dangly legs). Drawing images from all 17 of those lenses, it produces 360-degree spherical video

$30,000 a bit out of reach? No worries. The company is giving away both the hardware designs and the software. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg looks at the Surround360 as a tool for community building noting, “the best way to advance the technology is to work on it as a community.”

Facebook plans to share the plans for the technology this summer on GitHub.

Read more at Wired Magazine


MS Data Visualization Lecture, featuring Lev Manovich

Teacher, author, and media critic Lev Manovich comes to The New School on Wednesday, March 30 as part of the Data Visualization Masters program’s lecture series. Dr. Manovich will be discussing his Software Studies Initiative and the projects launched from it. He will also present his most recent project, an analysis of images shared on Twitter between 2011 and 2014.

More information can be found on The New School’s event page.