Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘data visualization’

05 MARCH, 2009

Sign of The Times: Data Visualization Heaven

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158 years of the cultural dialog, replayed and rewritten in visual language.

Newspapers have long been a paradise of visual information — from the early 20th century isotype language pioneered by Otto Neurath, to the elaborate vintage infographics we so love. So imagine our excitement when The New York Times announced Times Open last week, an open API initiative encouraging the development of applications around The Times‘ enormous vault of data.

If you swim in the shallow end of the geek pool, fear not: Here’s the Cliff’s Notes on API — it stands for application programing interface and is pretty much what shapes the behavior of one application as it interacts with others. For example, a WordPress plugin that displays your latest tweets on your blog uses the Twitter API to work the magic.

But what makes the NYT development particularly important is that the API opens up data from the paper’s entire 158-year archive — from the Civil War to the moon landing to the latest Radiohead album reviews — allowing developers and artists alike to do just about anything with it.

And they already are.

Vancouver-based generative software artist Jer Thorp has done a series of visualizations exploring the social conversation around certain terms as reflected in The Times over the last 27 years.

From the gossip on sex and scandal, to a face-off between the most iconic superheroes, to the increasing anxiety about global warming, the series is a visual documentary of our collective concern over issues big and small, the kind of mundane chatter and momentous movements that define a culture.

San Diego artist and developer Tim Schwartz is digging even deeper with visualizations of history that use The New York Times’ entire 158-year corpus of data. His interface plots terms over time, exploring how the cultural dialog has changed as our society evolves. It’s amazing to think some of our cultural givens were virtually nonexistent less than a century ago — like, for example, homosexuality, practically unspoken about publicly until the 70′s.

But perhaps most fascinating is how this changes and almost reverses the relationship between newspapers and data visualization — traditionally, infographics in publishing are visual representations of extraneous information that complements the newspaper’s depiction of the outside world, its message. This — the visualization of meta-data about the newspaper itself — is pretty much the opposite, an introspective analysis of the medium as it shapes the message.

If you find yourself intrigued by and drawn to this world of data visualization, do check out this excellent introduction to it, a wonderful find by our friends at BBH Labs.

via Nieman Journalism Lab

24 FEBRUARY, 2009

Geek Tuesday: Data Immersion Gone Wild

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Making sense of the world one dataset at a time, or what Mahnattan men and the poverty line have in common.

It’s no secret we’re huge (HUGE) data visualization junkies here. So we’re all over UUorld, a fantastic new immersive mapping environment that helps you makes sense of the data through highly intuitive visual analysis.

UUorld, pronounced [world], uses four-dimensional mapping — an approach that exposes the spatial and temporal context implicit to virtually all data, revealing insight far deeper and more compelling than any brain-numbing array of numbers splattered on an Excel spreadsheet could. (Which doesn’t surprise us, given the overwhelming evidence for the visual-spatial sketch pad’s role in cognition, comprehension and memory.)

While UUorld is capable of analyzing international trends and patterns, it also allows you to zoom in on sub-national elements like states, counties and even cities. The software comes with an enormous portal of free data, or you can import your own to visualize. The maps you build are highly customizable, so you can flex your creative muscle and art-direct your data visualizations to aesthetic perfection.

Visualizations and maps are downloadable in a variety of formats, including KML — which means you can export your data creations to Google Earth, plotting your data in its planetary context. And because Google Earth has an open API, we can only begin to imagine the fascinating potential for crowd-sourcing data visualization from UUorld users, eventually building an immense global library of trends and patterns that help us better understand our world and each other.

We’d love to see UUorld eventually explore the dynamic, creative potential of rich data analysis by partnering with data visualization artists like Chris Jordan, Aaron Koblin and Jonathan Harris.

A robust non-commercial version of UUorld is available for free, or you can go Pro for just $49, which we think is beyond reasonable for you get.

And if you aren’t ready to commit just yet, go ahead and explore the data gallery — you’ll find such delightful edutainment as the percentage of households run by single mothers, U.S. magnetic field intensity, a state-by-state dissection of the Obama stimulus package, and the average earnings of Manhattan men.

17 FEBRUARY, 2009

Vintage Design: Innovation Lessons from the Past

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Bleeding-edge art direction, what Obama’s agricultural policy has to do with vintage graphic design, and why 2009 is exactly like 1939.

It all began in the 1980′s, when editorial entrepreneur Janet A. Ginsburg stumbled upon a wonderful series of illustrations on a roll of microfilm while researching a story in the Chicago Tribune‘s library. The illustrations, titled “Robert and Peggy in a Century of Progress,” chronicled the adventures of a little boy and his sister at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Despite the poor quality of the microfilm, the artwork struck Janet with its aesthetic brilliance and intricacy, so she embarked upon a long journey to uncover the lost creative gems of the Chicago Tribune.

Art of The Message: The Story Behind the Chicago Tribune Collection captures Janet’s investigative expedition of trials and tribulations that eventually unearthed some of the 20th century’s most defining print design treasures. Gems like poster design so brave and groundbreaking it would be considered cutting-edge even by today’s jaded standards.

Pieces of history like the most pivotal moments of color photography — the first color photograph to be taken outdoors, away from the controlled environment of studio lights, which required elaborate three-plate filtering of the different colors and took technicians an entire night to get the engravings and half-tones just right.

From interactive inserts inviting the reader to play with the medium…

…to conceptually and aesthetically sophisticated advertising, complete with brilliant art direction and stellar typography, standing as an antithesis to the generic cliches flooding the pages of today’s print publications.

Then there was the editorial side, framing compelling op-eds in gripping visuals — literally, like in the story of the last emperor of China.

But most fascinating of all are the Tribune‘s striking data visualizations, a pinnacle of bleeding-edge journalism condensed in a vessel of stellar graphic design. Something that lives at the intersection of Al Jaffe’s iconic fold-ins and Chris Jordan’s gripping data representations. Something today’s magazines often try to do well and only rarely succeed –  you might find it in Wired‘s visual exposés or on the pages of GOOD, where our present-biased generation gawks at it in marvel of the innovation. Which, of course, is hardly novel, given such executions can be traced as far back as the late 1920′s — executions no less, if not more, visually and conceptually compelling, made with every bit as much thoughtfulness and wit and an aesthetic sensibility, yet made without any of today’s bells and whistles. (Adobe CS4 and $40,000-a-year graphic design schools, we’re looking at you.)

But here’s the most interesting part: At the closing of TED 2009 a couple of weeks ago, when the audience waved their iPhones into the air lighter-style to Jamie Cullum’s rendition of “Imagine,” we remarked what a metaphor this was for the times.

We’ve come a long way technologically, yet the social and cultural issues John Lennon sang about in 1971 are every bit as relevant and pressing today.

In a lot of ways, the Tribune‘s data visualizations are a similar reminder that those biggest burdens of yesteryear have not healed but swollen into social abscesses. Case in point: This dissection, circa 1938, of what a billion dollars is, trying to put economic scale in a culturally digestible context.

Remind you of something? Or of something else?

The same is true of this 1936 farm plan, a striking prequel to today’s most heated debates on agricultural subsidies and sustainable farming.

And as if it isn’t eye-opening enough to see two of today’s most hot-button issues — the economy and sustainability — make waves decades ago, there’s the matter of the truly biggest one of all: The tensions of international politics and their propensity for armed conflict tearing the world apart.

The moral of the story, of course, is that we did not invent the wheel — in design, in journalism, or in cultural concern, for that matter.

And while we may have honed our skills with new and better tools — better graphic design software, new media platforms for journalism to play out on, more awareness and philanthropy efforts — we still have a long, long way to go before we can declare ourselves truly innovative and claim real progress.

Explore The Art of The Message, it’s one of those rare fresh perspectives you won’t find on the regurgitated pages of today’s mass publications and info-recycling blogs.

via @TrackerNews