Textures of Complex Data: The works of Fernanda Viégas & Martin Wattenberg

Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg opened Columbia University’s Talk Series: Artists using Data in late March.

Messiness, Clutter and Revelation

As pioneers in data visualisation, analytics and data art, Viégas and Wattenberg have paved new pathways for users to understand and explore data.

As technologists we ask: Can visualization help people think collectively and move us beyond numbers into the realm of words and images and never-before-told stories? As artists we seek the joy of revelation.

While most of their current work is geared towards AI as part of Google Brain, Viégas and Wattenberg began by walking their audience through one of their earliest projects using Google called ‘Web Seer’ that allows users to compare Google Suggest completions.

This is also a really interesting window into public psyche. Because, this is what people are coming to google for. It visualizes exactly the same data but by adding a couple of dimensions. So, we get a sense of which ones are more popular. We can see the completions that are different for each one of the cases. But, we can also see what they have in common.

You see a richness in these kind of data sets. It also starts to show how vulnerable some people are when they come to google for answers.

Viégas

History Flow

Tying into the idea of data created by the masses, the artists unfolded processes that went into their notable ‘History Flow Tool’ which, visualized the behind-the-scenes dynamics of publicly edited Wikipedia pages in 2004, when the online encyclopedia was a relatively new and mysterious place on the web. Viégas prospected commonly overlooked occurrences on Wikipedia like vandalism, watch-listing, edit wars and disambiguation that go unnoticed due to the sheer Web 2.0 speed at which the giant encyclopedia gets edited.

Article on Abortion, Image Courtesy: hint.fm

Wikipedia fosters a knowledge community built upon trust. An interesting feature that the artists discovered in their process were Watch lists. Something that we commonly seem to be unaware of. Watch lists on article topics help active Wikipedia contributors take notice of vandalism. Every time an article of their interest is edited, contributors receive notifications. A notification from a new IP address or a user they haven’t seen before would be cause for alarm, wherein the community would check to make sure that it’s not a vandal. A real-time visualisation within the History Flow tool would show no discontinuities. 

An article on Cat tends to be longer than a lot of other articles such as ‘Design’, as more people edit ‘Cat’. The visualisation of the history of the ‘Abortion’ page would have distinct discontinuities, reflective of the polarized opinions around that topic. The artists also colored the text based on its age instead of the authors to determine parts of an article that could be posited as qualitatively more stable.

We were really interested in how people were negotiating in this sphere, how were they deciding what fits and what doesn’t fit. Questions like these, were out first exploration into how these collaboration dynamics work.

History Flow became a part of MoMA’s collection in 2003.

Seeing Music

Image Courtesy: bewitched.com

Image Courtesy: hint.fm

An attempt to extract structure from longer pieces of music, Wattenberg’s ‘The Shape of Song’ from 2011 looked at notes of repetitions from classical music and folk songs to Jazz and Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.

Jazz is actually quite interesting. You get something that’s relatively simple at the beginning, which then explodes into complexity towards the end. This, to me, is actually capturing something visually that you can otherwise only hear.

Flickr Flow

In 2009, a Boston-based print magazine ‘The Positive Things’ commissioned Viégas and Wattenberg’s piece Flickr Flow with a brief to visualize Boston. The artists turned to the photo-sharing website Flickr for a year’s worth of creative-commons images of Boston Common, a central public park in downtown Boston, Massachusetts – with the intent to capture Boston’s visual dimension through its seasonality. The images were organized by months and parsed through for different kinds of reds, greens and so on, counting pixels for each image, which became raw data for drawing the ribbons.

 

This is a very “dirty” data set if you will, because these were not all going to be beautiful pictures. There would be pictures of benches, for example and other things that have nothing to do with flowers or foliage. But, we decided to work with the messiness and see if we can get somewhere.

Even with all the messiness in the data, there was still some signal that there is change. In fact, this looks very fluid. But if we break it down into the height of each season, you can see that the color distribution is dramatically different between winter, fall, summer and spring.

Art of Reproduction

Playing with the idea of visual half-truths, Watternberg’s Art of Reproduction was a collection of fragmented collages of famous artworks representing dramatic differences across the reproduced images.

Not all of these images are really the correct image at all. For one thing, they are different sizes. But, more deeply, the colors are different. And if you keep looking, you realize just how broad the variation is. We all know that reproductions are not the same as the original on some level. But, seeing the breadth of these different things is impressive. 

The Wind Map 

In 2012, the artists pioneered a distinctive way of visualizing the wind – something that has virtually no visual form. Working with government data of the United States, they initially began by conceiving of wind as ‘particles that we see as a pattern’. Eventually, they settled on the idea of particles that would leave behind little trails, which allowed for communicating subtler forms information such as change in direction.

Image Courtesy: hint.fm

When Hurricane Isaac made landfall in August 2012, the artists began receiving emails from people affected by the natural disaster.

It was a very strong experience to have something on the web that is real-time that people were looking at for very different reasons and that we had people in these very specific situations talking to you about the data that you’re visualizing.

Image Courtesy: hint.fm

When working with data such as this, designers tend to aggregate in turn obfuscating a lot of the detail. Viégas and Wattenberg, instead emphasize the texture and richness of the data relying on the viewer’s visual system and intuitive understanding of the difference between ‘broad patterns of wind versus delicate things’. This particular map came to be used professionally by farmers, and scientists who observed bird migrations and butterfly migrations, and teachers and school children to learn forecasting. Cameron Beccario, a software engineer adapted this tool to scale it to the entire earth at different levels going up to the stratosphere, creating greater accessibility to the data for purposes such as aerial navigation.

There were a lot of decisions we made in this visualisation – design decisions. We’re not using color, for instance. We’re not showing pressure or temperature. We’re not drawing (geopolitical) boundaries on the map. We wanted this to be as unobtrusive as possible. We wanted you to see the shape because that’s what we wanted to see and then, people started using it in really unexpected ways.

It speaks to the power of just making complex data easily accessible. How can you make anyone digest and interact with complex data. This is one of the aspects of data visualisation that’s near and dear to us.

The Wind Map became a part of MoMA’s collection in 2012.

What Improv Storytelling has to offer to Data Artists

In 2015, Ben Wellington gave a TEDx talk on how he borrowed principles from his lifelong love for Improv Comedy and applied it to his Data Visualization practice. “I accidentally became a data storyteller,” he says.

“The Open Data Laws are really exciting for people like me because it takes data that is inside City Government, and suddenly allows anyone to look at it.”

The narrative that came out of contextualizing this data spotted zones that fervent NYC cyclists are better off avoiding and shed some light on the battle strategies of new yorkers’ favorite pharmacies. Wellington closes the distance between Data Viz and Improv by ‘Connecting with People’s Experiences’ and ‘Conveying one simple (and powerful) idea at a time’.

Alan Alda, the seven-time emmy winning actor of M*A*S*H along with Ocean and Environmental Scientist and Associate Director at The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, Dr. Christine O’Connell experimented with a group of scientists, doctors and engineers in 2016 in a workshop to employ Improv Storytelling in communicating their research.

“I think anybody that studies something so deeply, whether you’re an engineer, whether you’re an artist, whether you’re in business, you forget what it’s like not to know” – O’Connell

Empathy lies at the heart of Improv and therefore, at the heart of good communication. The idea of speaking to your audience and working with them to create a common language and evolve into clarity is especially relevant for Data Scientists and Data Artists.

The Data Artist creates an imaginary, artificial environment not dissimilar to that of an Improv actor where certain cues are visible and certain others have to be made up. The logic of this environment, however, needs to be consistent and is as important as the trust established within it.

“Even small breaks can affect credibility. – When we visualize data, we are (asking our audience to suspend their understanding of reality for a moment and accept new rules and conditions). We are asking our audience to understand shapes and forms on a digital screen to be something other than what they are.” – Ryan Morrill, Storybench, October 2017.

The Data Viz equivalent of Laughter in an Improv Comedy Scene is the deriving of Insight, says Morrill, where the logic reveals a reward.

The Trouble With Election Maps

The election map in the New York Times was the subject of plenty of conversations in the data visualization and cartography world yesterday. As much as we here at CDA love a good conversation about visual representation (and apparently, we like to do it in rhyme), this map did raise a lot of questions and concerns. In a post for CityLab, Andrew Small writes: “America needs a voting map that actually looks like America.”

Small continues:

But as people tee up to argue and theorize about what the electoral map means for the country, I’m reminded of a recent point of wisdom my colleague Laura Bliss made recently—maps aren’t facts, they’re starting points.

Read Small’s full post for his thoughts on where we can start.

Data Matters Interview Series: Kiersten Nash

Designer, artist, and educator Kiersten Nash likes asking questions. Asking the right questions has changed a lot for her, and getting the people who engage with her work to ask questions, too, is a big part of why she does the work she does. The question she’s been asking lately is “How can we raise awareness about groundwater?” She and her colleagues in the design collective Public Works Collaborative have been attempting to answer that through their recently completed project Livestream.

Livestream, an interactive sound sculpture installed in Lexington, KY’s Jacobson Park, is a project designed to get people asking questions about water—where it’s coming from, what’s in it, how is it being monitored. It isn’t just an artwork, though, Livestream is designed to actively monitor the state’s groundwater using a custom designed toolkit. This first iteration of the project, featuring sounds composed by musician Ben Sollee, “translates data measuring each spring’s conductivity, temperature and flow into sound.” I spoke to Kiersten recently about Livestream, her design process, and how “[un]learning” can be the key to asking the right question.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

 

Continue reading “Data Matters Interview Series: Kiersten Nash”

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”

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.