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

Posts Tagged ‘information-visualisation’

Dataviz Salon SF #1

Michael Driscoll of Dataspora invited a few people to a Dataviz Salon yesterday evening. Mike and I went along and huddled in a brick-built basement in SoMa to listen to the following:

Thanks to Michael for putting on a great event and getting everything together at such short notice. Hopefully there'll be another one soon!

New Work: Hurricane Tracker for MSNBC

Thanks to a glorious holiday weekend in Bodega Bay, I've been scooped once again by my esteemed friends and colleagues in announcing our work on MSNBC's Hurricane Tracker, which debuted on Saturday. I jumped on this project as soon as I knew we had a chance to work on it, and despite the inevitable project logistics and some awkward travel timing on my part I'm glad to say it made it out before the end of the hurricane season.

There are four storms active in the Atlantic right now:

MSNBC Hurricane Tracker

There's much to say about this, not least the fact that it's the first thing I've ever really worked on that exists in a competitive environment with many credible alternatives.

However, there's still more to come so it will be a while before there's time to properly reflect. For now, let me echo Mike in saying I also think map design for the web continues to be an exciting and vibrant area to be working in, and leave you with a quote from Google's Ed Parsons:

That’s not to say the principals of design are not important in the creation of “maps” for screen display, indeed one could argue for the need of a “new” cartography which adopts rather than ignores the capabilities of screen based maps to portray information dynamically.

— Ed Parsons, "Cartography is dead, long live the map makers"

A Quote From Edward Tufte

Edward Tufte, October 27, 2006:

"In choosing templates for workaday graphical productions, it is worthwhile to look for excellent, conventional templates. Conventional templates immediately solve a lot of graphical reading problems for the viewer of the display. But the classics are often classics because they are off-the wall, unconventional, idiosyncratic, one-off, brilliant, historically original performances. Tinkering with Minard's Napoleon's March is no better than an artist tinkering with Picasso's Guernica."

Ask E.T. Museum Visits

Data Visualisation Blogs You Might Not Know About

A quick thanks to Nathan Yau for the plug over at Flowing Data...

I tried to add a comment there with some blogs I subscribe to (some already mentioned, some not) but I suspect the spam filter thought I was nuts to try posting 20 links. So here are a few other blogs/feeds you might like, if you like Flowing Data and came here from there:

My colleagues Mike, Eric and Shawn might also blog about info-viz from time to time, at least as relevantly as I do.

And del.icio.us, as ever, is indispensable for finding infoviz blogs.

Who have I missed? Let me know in the comments!

Accidental Visual Resonance

In my post about the good people at Yahoo's design research group in September I suggested that some of their visualisations remind me of the movie War Games. I love the movie, but I continue to think that certain kinds of accidental visual resonance should be avoided. The 'incoming' visualisations by the good people at Dopplr have this problem too.

Oakland Fires

Today, Mike sent me the above image that Gem ffffound showing the devastation caused by the Oakland Hills firestorm in 1991. It's shocking, stunning and scary all at once to see so many homes ablaze like that. Mike pointed out that it looks like some of the work from our Trulia Hindsight project at Stamen.

Thankfully I think Mike was referring to the early prototypes I made in Processing using additive blending and a red-through-blue colour range. I've uploaded a movie of one of these prototypes to Vimeo so you can get an idea of what we're talking about:


San Francisco Property Prices, Animated from Stamen on Vimeo.

The fact that certain parts of the movie looked like San Francisco was burning, or being bombed, was definitely a problem we had to avoid for the final piece. It's something I wouldn't want to be thinking about addicentally if I was trying to find out about real-estate in the area. What we want is to make something that can illustrate the effects of real devastation if we want it to, without emotionally swindling you if you just want to think about urban growth. That's why we knocked out the red and orange hues in the colour range, added a drop shadow and ditched the additive blending. Ultimately, it was more appropriate to show data on the map than in the map.

Oakland Building Activity

So, if you want to you can look up some of the areas of Oakland affected by the fires in 1991, such as this example, and spot the clear rebuilding activity in 1992. With luck, the animation will illustrate some of the devastation caused by the fires, without looking like a simulated disaster.

Sticks and Rocks: Illustrating the Problem?

Over at Data Mining, Matthew Hurst takes exception to JC Herz's assessment of his map of the blogosphere as "(approx.) "completely useless"". Having recently engaged in several discussions about beautiful-but-useless visualizations I continue to insist that not everything has to be useful; perhaps Matthew doesn't intend for his map of the blogosphere to necessarily be useful in a traditional sense. That said, I have to admit that JC's blunt assessment is easy to agree with, and I had a similar reaction to the maps when I first saw them myself.

After the initial wave of early Google Maps mashups, some members of the mapping hacks community settled on the term "Red Dot Fever" (coined by Jo Walsh or Schuyler Erle, I think) to sum up the common patterns they were seeing. In a similar fashion (affectionate, but with a critical eye), my colleague Mike Migurski calls the prevailing network visualization technique the "Sticks and Rocks Diagram".

Matthew's images clearly have lots in common with the kinds of work catalogued meticulously at Visual Complexity. Sadly, I think a lot of the work there (some of my own included) is better at illustrating the problem than really informing us about the data that drives it. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with a popular approach to something, but when the results are so often misunderstood I bet we can all do better.

I've read a lot of research papers that would suggest that visualizing large complex networks is hard. Throwing the data at the screen and seeing what sticks is possibly a road to understanding, but I suspect it's an incredibly long one. Calling something "completely useless" doesn't drive our field forward or help open it up to new audiences, but the sentiment underpinning that reaction is something we could all work to understand better.

To me, red-dot-fever maps and sticks-and-rocks diagrams always look like works in progress.

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.

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.

The one with crazy 3D bar charts coming out of the Earth

Over the last few weeks I've been collecting circular visualisations. This week, I seem to keep running into 3D globes and heatmaps. I'm all for 3D done right, but even with my fondness for circular visualisations I'm still wary of these things. (Of course I'm not denying the eye candy appeal of any of it!).

First up, Twingly, which I think is a Swedish blog aggregator/search site of sorts, but I came across it as a screensaver video on YouTube:

Twingly blogoshpere visualisation

The person who posted it to YouTube helpfully describes the blogosphere for those of us not in the inner circle:

"The blogosphere is the total sum of all blogs connected into a social network. The term was cool a year ago but is too widespread now for the general blog crowd to use it. But since it's actually a useful term it is still referred to by the inner circle. From there it will work it's way back into the common language, acheiving a renaissance around febtuary next year."

So that's cleared that up then. Next up, an academic one, G-Econ from Yale (via Things Magazine), which plots geographically based economic data:

G-Econ from Yale

I admire their thoroughness in doing the whole world (check the site for country by country breakdowns), and their multi-megabyte eye candy movies. It's a shame it's all based on a GDP-like measure, which isn't the most intuitive or easy to visualise thing itself. I'm reading their papers now to see what the story is.

Lastly, I'm really pleased Dan Catt over at Flickr/Geobloggers can't resist plotting his interestingness heatmaps in 3D inside Google Earth. When the sky goes pink you know it's because Yahoo's Dubai office decided to build it for real.

Early Flickr Google Earth heatmap

Update: Eric found this one from ESRI:

Results 2004

Some Attempts at Twitter Visualisation

Twitter is a website that asks only one thing, "what are you doing?" and aggregates your responses intermingled with the responses of your friends over the last 24 hours. If you let it (I don't) it will SMS you every time your friends update, or if you prefer (I do) it will send you an instant message instead. It will also let you update by web, IM or SMS. It's certainly an easy way to SMS a group of people and only pay for one message, but the IM and web integration mean it's more than just group SMS.

So it's not IM, SMS or the web, but it talks to all three. I like it. I want to hate it. I suppose I cheat, because I don't let it SMS me very often. And maybe because most of my contacts are a continent away, so I only get a few messages a day (they're all asleep). But there it is: I'm not stressed out by it, I'm still Getting Things Done (though that system's not for me, yet). Continuous Partial Attention be damned.

Of course, it's fully Web 2.0 buzz-word compliant, so it has an API that you can use to get data in and out. Not a super-useful one for visualisation, but useful enough to get started. Knocking some ideas back and forth at Stamen with Eric yesterday I decided it was worth trying his idea of plotting twitter activity on a circle. I started with a circle representing the previous 24 hours, rather than a 12 hour clock face, for several reasons:

That's it really.

Given 24 hours of statuses I assigned each user a colour and plotted the status at an angle corresponding to how much of the day had elapsed. I joined each message to the previous message from that person, if there was one. Here is how my first pass turned out:

first twitter vis

And here's another variation, still with a colour per person but ditching the arcs and instead using concentric rings for status messages. There are small dots again mapped to time of day. Moire be damned.

second twitter vis

The top of the circle is midnight (PST), the bottom is noon. The data was sampled at about 4pm. I'm not sure where this circular/spiral visualisation is going, but if I revisit it I will probably unroll them into a rectangle in the hope that there is space to draw and read the messages. After all, the messages are what it's all about.

These were built with Processing, using the now-built-in XML support and the gorgeous PDF library. I haven't posted the applet because it doesn't work online with the Twitter API, sorry.