Random Etc. Notes to self. Work, play, and the rest.

Archive for September 2007

Processing Blogs Fixed II: Electric Boogaloo

Let's try this again. If you're reading this on Processing Blogs or via its feed, then everything should be working.

Instead of Feedwordpress and Planet Planet put together with sticky tape and glue, I'm using the better documented Planet Venus and WP-Venus so our archives are maintained.

If you ever need to run a site similar to Processing Blogs and your web host can run python then I definitely recommend Planet or Planet Venus as the solution. WP-Venus complained a little bit when I converted from Feedwordpress, but it looks good so far: hopefully the archives will be worth the effort.

More Musings on Uselessness

Blocks has been out almost a week and the dust is settling a little. Off the cuff remarks are fading out and thoughtful responses are emerging. The second post on Visual Methods, a new blog from MIT Comparitive Media Studies student mike_d, has some good feedback.

I won't address his specific criticisms of Blocks here because agree with a lot of them and we're working on improvements that should go some way to addressing them. However, I do take issue with beginning criticism of the piece using the "standards of canonical information visualization". This relates to the uselessness posts Mike and I made earlier in the week.

Mike_d calls me out on my Techcrunch comment, suggesting that I want both useful and useless at the same time:

No offense to Tom, but it sounds like he's playing both sides! He admits to its potential uselessness but simultaneously suggests that that it is quite functional. Based on Stamen's previous work, I do think they are trying to produce useful information tools and not just pretty designs, but justifications like this seem like an easy way out of more careful consideration of their design. And frankly, the "works for me" defense seems completely antithetical to the principles of information visualization!

I really don't think I'm playing both sides here. Unfortunately, when I respond to people who think Blocks is useless, I'm conceding terms and fighting an uphill battle to make my real point. Perhaps that's a mistake (and yet here I am again).

I think that people who insist on evaluating Blocks as a tool - and conclude that it's useless - are wrong: I've found it useful myself, hence the "worksforme" comment on Techcrunch. But what I really think is that they're looking too hard for the purpose and utility of it before appreciating that it's really a way to look at Twitter from a different angle. I don't think it needs to start from a position of usefulness to be interesting. Furthermore, it's not that it is/isn't useful, it's whether utility is the guiding concern. For us (with Blocks) it wasn't.

Aesthetics vs Data
(image by Mike, illustrating my words, as a response to Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino's post)

At Stamen we're knowingly operating on a fine line between aesthetic-driven visualisation (effective information visualisation that is also beautiful) and data-driven aesthetics (beautiful things that also represent data). It's a largely unexplored line (perhaps the area that Mike_d's first post has identified as emerging) that I would compare to the line between designer/coder that I comfortably and steadfastly occupy every day.

Fundamentally though, Blocks is a visualisation of Twitter and its users for Twitter and its users, by Twitter and its users. We have made an attempt to make it understandable for people who don't use the service, but that's a hard task and it's confounded if you're looking for something that's not there.

There aren't really any metrics there, just the things that people said in the order that they said them. Squared.

Processing Blogs Fixed

If you're reading this on Processing Blogs, or via its feed, then everything should be fixed. For some reason, Feedwordpress just stopped working and wouldn't re-subscribe to lots of the feeds that were previously fine.

Feeds are now being grabbed robustly by Planet and merely massaged by Feedwordpress. Here's the current list:

Please do let me know if I'm syndicating too much or too little, and especially if I'm missing people or if I'm syndicating your blog and you don't want me to. Otherwise, the site should run itself for a while.

Design.Yahoo: Web 2.0 meets War Games?

Whilst I wrestle with my reaction to the reception of Twitter Blocks, it's interesting to look at what other people in information visualisation are working on.

Yahoo Design

Yahoo's new design research outfit, apparently also known as yhaus, have just put up a site outlining their work so far. The first thing I noticed is that they've snagged an amazing subdomain: design.yahoo.com. The second thing I noticed is that compared to other teams I'm aware of in the field (including Stamen) they have a pretty good gender balance (a thorny issue but I'm noting it anyway). The third thing I'll note is the guest appearance of non-Yahoo work in the portraits of the team: I see Torrent Raiders, Fidg't... what else?

Sadly, all but one of the demos there so far is a big Quicktime movie. I know that with millions of users Yahoo has to be a stickler for browser support and compatibility, but I hope they get a chance to take this work live on the web as well as demo it in movie form. There's some solid realtime Flash and Processing work hiding in there, and people (OK, I) want to see it in its interactive entirety.

There's clearly some healthy collaboration and influence going on there (much as in our work, e.g. Ben Fry's zipdecode looms large over the interactive version of our Trulia search animation). Yahoo's Aaron Koblin is best known for his Flight Patterns piece, and this visualisation by Michael Chang of Yahoo trip planner data is very similar:

Yahoo Travel

Likewise, Aaron's work on traffic patterns bears a close resemblance to Flight Patterns:

Yahoo Traffic

I don't want to pick on them too much, because it's really beautiful work I admire a great deal (and it might seem like sour grapes), but both the pieces I've highlighted do suffer from something we've tried to avoid at Stamen: animated information graphics on top of black backgrounds and vector maps can easily look like screenshots from a modern-day War Games:

War Games: Missile Warning

I'm glad other people as well as us are experimenting in public, and I'm glad sites like Infosthetics and Visual Complexity are cataloguing our efforts. We need our own visual language around this kind of visualisation that doesn't resonate with the imagery of war.

Apple's iphone has made a strong impression with slick transitions in its interface design, but the maps application still borrows from Google's pseudo-shadows and static pins. The playful interfaces of the Nintendo's Wii games certainly offer a different path, but the rest of the games (and movie) industry's cinematic-realism aesthetic exerts a strong influence over our generation of designers and it isn't going to meet these goals any time soon.

It's a fairly regular topic of conversation at Stamen: how can you make a visualisation of e.g. 911 calls actually look like emergencies, and not birthday parties or toilet flushes, without freaking people out and without making it mundane? Is it possible to use great circles to connect air travel destinations without it looking like missiles? Can you animate growing and shrinking red and yellow circles on an aerial map without it looking like Gulf War I weapons company propaganda?

It's a bloggy weekend here at Random Etc, if you're reading along I'm definitely interested to hear your thoughts.

Criticism for Twitter Blocks

Twitter Blocks Launched!

We finally kicked Twitter Blocks out of the door yesterday. It's been in development for about a month, mainly by Ryan Alexander and myself (but all Ryan whilst I was working on Oakland Crimespotting, he's a star). It's the first time we've done 3D things using Flash and it's amazing what's being done with Papervision3D at the moment. On the other hand, having 3D shoe-horned into the 2D Flash engine means the learning curve is a lot steeper than the native-3D Processing/OpenGL worlds Ryan and I are used to.

Whenever Stamen launches a new thing, my immediate reaction is a sigh of relief followed by a slightly obsessive-compulsive trawl of what people are saying about it online. (I use a combination of alerts from Technorati, Google Blog Seach and Bloglines to keep track).

The interesting thing about working with companies like Digg and Twitter is that your work inherits all the criticisms and detractors of those sites as well. Digg's users are clamouring for a picture section, so when we launched Digg Arc many of the responses ignored the piece entirely and chastised Digg for paying attention to visualisation and not to the main site. The same argument is already being used against Twitter Blocks, even though the amount of time Twitter's developers put into it was tiny compared to the amount of time they're putting into stability and new features.

Don't get me wrong: some of the early feedback we're getting is very positive, the team at Twitter have been very receptive and we're proud of our work. This much is good. Some of the feedback we're getting points out that the work isn't immediately understandable (I agree, and maybe we could do some more explaining, but I think we're OK for now).

However, there is also a strong and steady flow of negative comments that I've gathered here so I can think about them all in one place.

“Pretty visualization but I doubt its practicality.” PoppuPot

“Twitter Blocks is the kind of thing that demos well at conferences. Not too useful in real life.” Dave Winer

“exploring myneighbourhood : fun 3D view but so what? not sure i will do that everyday.” jean-michel gobet

“Well its interesting that its a new Twitter toy, but I just don't get it. Functional?” programwitch

“Puzzled but Entertained” … “Not really got the slightest idea why this is anything other than an interesting folly.” Tom Coates

“What is the point? Beats me.” Russel Heimlich

“I have to say I was absolutely gobsmacked by how utterly pointless it is.” EirePreneur

(The last one is, short of a personal insult, pretty much the harshest thing anyone has ever said about work I've been involved in.)

To address Tom Coates' point, if you're entertained we've done our job. If you're puzzled then maybe we can help explain things better next time. But I don't mind if some of our work is seen as a folly (“an extravagant, frivolous or fanciful building, designed more for artistic expression than for practicality”). Not everything that everyone does has to be useful or profound. (Nevermind that we've personally found Twitter Blocks a useful way to explore the Twitter network in the last few weeks, with frequent remarks of “I didn't know X was on Twitter”).

Jim Bumgardner (aka KrazyDad, author of O'Reilly's Flickr Hacks) addressed the “so what?” response to frivolous work in a blog post called Utility is Overrated a couple of months back. In the comments there's a comparison with Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation. In it, she states that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art”. I don't want to point at Twitter Blocks and say “art” (the Motorola sponsorship in particular makes that tricky) but I think that people are thinking too hard about things if they're looking for the “point” of it.

I'm not asking that people stop casting a critical eye over what's presented to them, especially when it's being hyped to death and it's commercially branded. It's fine to ask “what's it for?”, especially of new tools or things that aim to improve the efficiency or effectiveness of this or that. But why not also accept that some things might just be for entertainment and ask “am I having fun” once in a while instead of looking for a problem to be solved or an important statement to be read? Some things just are.