Brain Pickings

7 Essential Books on Data Visualization & Computational Art

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What 12 million human emotions have to do with civilian air traffic and the order of the universe.

I’ve spent the past week being consistently blown away at the EyeO Festival of data visualization and computational arts, organized by my friend Jer Thorp, New York Times data artist in residence, and Dave Schroeder of Flashbelt fame. While showcasing their mind-blowing, eye-blasting work, the festival’s all-star speakers have been recommending their favorite books on the subject matter, so I’ve compiled the top recommendations for your illuminating pleasure. Enjoy.

PROCESSING

Processing, the open-source programming language and integrated development environment invented by Casey Reas and Ben Fry in 2001, is easily the most fundamental framework underpinning the majority of today’s advanced data visualization projects. Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists, which Casey Reas called “the first substantial handbook on art in computer science,” is an elegant introduction to the Processing language, bridging the gap between programming and visual art. It’s an invaluable self-learning tool for the novice coder and a standby reference guide for the Processing practitioner.

Recommended by: Casey Reas

WE FEEL FINE

Since 2005, (a longtime Brain Pickings favorite) have been algorithmically scrobbling the social web to capture occurrences of the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling” harvesting human sentiment around them by recording the full context in which the phrase occurs. The result was a database of millions of human feelings, logged in the We Feel Fine project and growing by about 20,000 per day. Because the blogosphere is lined with metadata, it was possible to extract rich information about the posts and their authors, from age and gender to geolocation and local weather conditions, adding a new layer of meaning to the feelings. The project’s API, with nearly 7 years’ worth of data, is the most comprehensive record of human emotion ever documented.

In 2009, Sep and Jonathan published highlights from the project in We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion — a remarkable visual exploration of the 12 million human emotions collected since the project’s dawn. Infographic magic and data visualization wizardry make this massive repository of found sentiment incredibly personal yet incredibly relatable. From despair to exhilaration, from the public to the intimate, it captures the passions and dreams of which human existence is woven through candid vignettes, intelligent infographics and scientific observations.

Reviewed in full here.

Recommended by: Jer Thorp

SYNC

In Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life, Cornell mathematician Steven H. Strogatz explores the intersection of math, physics, quantum science and biology to unravel the mystery of how spontaneous order occurs at every level of existence, from the cell nucleus to the cosmos. The same principles that Christiaan Huygens observed in 1665 as two pendulum clocks to swung in unison and pedestrians experienced in near-hoor at the 2000 opening of the Millennium footbridge in London are the same principles that fascinate and drive many of today’s data visualization artists as they seek to discover and make visible the patterns and orders underpinning our world.

Recommended by: Jer Thorp

INFORMATION VISUALIZATION

Information Visualization, Second Edition: Perception for Design explores the art and science of why we see objects the way we do through an exercise in visual literacy that makes the science of visualization accessible and illuminating to a non-specialist reader, without dumbing any of it down. From the cognitive science of perception to a review of empirical research on interface design, the book covers a remarkable spectrum of theory and practice fueling data visualization as a design discipline and a visual language.

Recommended by: Moritz Stefaner

ART FORMS IN NATURE

Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature), originally featured in his omnibus on biology-inspired art, is a remarkable book of lithographic and autotype prints by German artist and biologist Ernst Haeckel, originally published in sets of ten between 1899 and 1904 and as a complete volume in 1904. It features of 100 prints of various organisms, many first described by Haeckel himself. (You may recall Proteus, the fascinating short documentary about Haeckel’s work and legacy, featured here earlier this year.) The shapes, color theory and aesthetic of Haeckel’s work are the inspiration behind much of today’s generative art.

The copyright on the book has now expired and all the images are in the public domain, available for free on Wikimedia Commons.

Recommended by: Wes Grubbs

BEAUTIFUL VISUALIZATION

Beautiful Visualization: Looking at Data through the Eyes of Experts examines what makes successful visualization through insights, perspectives and project case studies by 24 experts — artists, designers, design writers, scientists, statisticians, programmers and more. Above all, it explores the intricacies of visual storytelling through projects that tackle everything from civilian air traffic to the social graphs of Amazon book purchases, blending the practical with the poetic.

Contributors include Nick Bilton, Jessica Hagy, Aaron Koblin, Moritz Stefaner, Jer Thorp, Fernanda Viegas, Martin Wattenberg, and Michael Young.

Recommended by: Aaron Koblin (Previously: I II III IV V)

MATERIAL WORLD

The work of photojournalist Peter Menzel (of Hungry Planet and What I Eat fame) broadens the definition of “data visualization” though the lens of the humanities, offering compelling visual anthropology captures the striking span of humanity’s socioeconomic and cultural spectrum. His Material World: A Global Family Portrait is an engrossing visual portrait of the world’s possessions across 30 countries, captured by 16 of the world’s leading photographers. In each country, Menzel found a statistically average family and photographed them outside their home, with all of their belongings. The result is an incredible cross-cultural quilt of possessions, from the utilitarian to the sentimental, revealing the faceted and varied ways in which we use “stuff” to make sense of the world and our place in it.

China: The Wu Family

The nine members of this extended family live in a 3-bedroom, 600-sq-foot dwelling in rural Yunnan Province. They have no telephone and get news through two radios and the family's most prized possession, a television. In the future, they hope to get one with a 30-inch screen as well as a VCR, a refrigerator, and drugs to combat diseases in the carp they raise in their ponds. Not included in the photo are their 100 mandarin trees, vegetable patch, and three pigs.

Image copyright Peter Menzel via PBS | www.menzelphoto.com

United States: The Skeen Family

Rick and Pattie Skeen's 1,600-sq-foot house lies on a cul-de-sac in Pearland, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Rick, 36, now splices cables for a phone company. Pattie, 34, teaches at a Christian academy. Photographers hoisted the family up in a cherry picker to fit in all their possessions, but still had to leave out a refrigerator-freezer, camcorder, woodworking tools, computer, glass butterfly collection, trampoline, fishing equipment, and the rifles Rick uses for deer hunting, among other things. Despite their possessions, nothing is as important to the Skeens as their Bible -- an interesting contrast between spiritual and material values.

Image copyright Peter Menzel via PBS | www.menzelphoto.com

Japan: The Ukita Family

43-year-old Sayo Ukita had children relatively late in life, like many Japanese women. Her youngest daughter is now in kindergarten, not yet burdened by the pressures of exams and Saturday 'cram school' that face her nine-year-old sister. Sayo is supremely well-organized, which helps her manage the busy schedules of her children and maintain order in their 1,421-sq-foot Tokyo home stuffed with clothes, appliances, and an abundance of toys for both her daughters and dog. Despite having all the conveniences of modern life, the family's most cherished possessions are a ring and heirloom pottery. Their wish for the future: a larger house with more storage space.

Image copyright Peter Menzel via PBS | www.menzelphoto.com

Mali: The Natomo Family

It's common for men in this West African country to have two wives, as 39-year-old Soumana Natomo does, which increases their progeny and in turn their chance to be supported in old age. Soumana now has eight children, and his wives, Pama Kondo (28) and Fatouma Niangani Toure (26), will likely have more. How many of these children will survive, though, is uncertain: Mali's infant mortality rate ranks among the ten highest in the world. Possessions not included in this photo: Another mortar and pestle for pounding grain, two wooden mattress platforms, 30 mango trees, and old radio batteries that the children use as toys.

Image copyright Peter Menzel via PBS | www.menzelphoto.com

Reviewed in full, with more images, here.

Recommended by: Jake Barton

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