Data Visualization: A talk by Christian Marc Schmidt

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@arcadenwA 501(c)(3) nonprofit, ARCADE’s mission is to incite dialogue about design and the built environment. Patterns and Identities: Data Visualization as Interface bArcade

ARCADE event.

Photo from the sold-out event in Seattle Art Museum's Board Room.
Photo from the sold-out event in Seattle Art Museum’s Board Room.

Christian Marc Schmidt started his talk in the Board Room at Seattle Art Museum last Thursday (Valentine’s Day!) with a supercut of science fiction interfaces. They seem so futuristic, so innovative. Are we really so far from that in our current interface technology?

Kinect –, Oblong G-Speak, Leap Motion and Google Glass are a few of the leading companies in creating innovation in the world of interface. The increase in storage capacity among other things are indicators and facilitators of the future of technology, leading to more processing more to make these complex interactions a reality.

The information overload is also a drive to create better interfaces. We must make sense of all the data/information we have available. Good interfaces to data visualization leads to understanding of things that matter. It should find information you care about and connect information you care about. In the intersection of understanding and interaction, Data visualization is more than an infograph, its a tool for research, analysis and communication.

Schmidt talks about three pillars of Data Visualization, Context, Comparison and Control.

Context (ex. The Opte Project. Below is a visualization of the Internet)


Context, boundaries of information. This picture represents the context, the whole picture. With this perspective (to use the metaphor, zoomed out), we can see patterns, outliers and gaps, comprehend complexities. Perhaps, with this kind of image, it makes something big and abstract seem controllable in its scope. Do we feel like we control our world better when we can make tiny pictures of it?

(other example: The Whale Hunt)

Comparison (ex. CNN, Home and Away)

This is a way to see indiviual data points in relation to each other. Ways to compare– Schmidt lists 5 ways in this acronym LATCH (L- Location, A- Alphabet, T- Time, C- Category, H- Hierarchy) and he reports that some speculate on a sixth way that doesn’t fit in the acronym, N, for network.

(ex. Mascos Weskamp, Newsmap)

Sometimes Data Visualization asks more questions than solves. Or sometimes lets you make connections. The Juxtaposition of elements fuels curiosity rather than quelches it. Ben Fry’s graph of Fortune 500 profit. What happens those days when the graph severely plunges?

Control (ex. Amy Keeling’s Shift –which is an amazing visualization articles published on the front page of The New York Times– and Gap Minder, a TED talk)

Amy Keeler's Shift. Organizing articles chronologically and by topic. Using Color and Position.
Amy Keeler’s Shift. Organizing articles chronologically and by topic. Using Color and Position.

This aspect is about being able to find insights in the data, create stories. A lot of success relies on an effective interface, similar to the problems solved by wayfinding for the real space, interface is sign posts and bread crumbs for an abstract space.

Schmidt goes on to talk about his experience in Data Visualization projects:

Pentagram’s One Laptop Per Child– Visualizing Social Interaction

SUGAR interface screenshot showing the feature of connecting to nearby laptops.

The laptop used in this project, giving many children access to technology is an education program. SUGAR (Sugar is the core of the OLPC Human Interface) came about through a “people-first” design mentality. Color is used in a meaningful way, uniquely identifying users, the icons, the OX, represents people. The laptops come with a mesh network which enables connections to nearby computers and encourages real-time collaborative activities. They did no research or user testing early on. It proved mostly fine, but there were some early insights like “keep icons in view.” Prior, the user had to “roll-over” the frame to see their activity bar (see above). The folder metaphor doesn’t exist in the project organization structure, instead it’s organized chronologically and shows the activity icons and the unique people involved.

Pentagram’s Creative Time — Visualizing an Archive

The challenge here was how to control the scope of an archive, going from the individual program, to its microsite and corresponding media.

Pentagram’s Museum of Arts and Design — Visualizing a Collection

Identity conveyed through information. Dynamic captions, being able to zoom out to the collection and zoom in to the work and explore features like process videos of individual pieces. This is a great example how architecture informs a design. A side note, people thought that the directory screens indicating the floors of the space were interactive (but they were not). People’s expectations of screens have increased.

Schmidt goes on to talk about his experimental Data Visualization projects:

Pastiche — Visualizing Urban Sentiment: A Collective Composition of New York City, by Ivan Safrin & Christian Marc Schmidt

The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch inspired this work. Where Kevin Lynch created archetypal maps of a city using people’s mental maps, Schmidt and Safrin made a word map.

“The city is a composite of impressions. Beyond the built environment, it is a constantly changing pastiche of associations and experiences—not just of the people who inhabit it, but of the larger community. New York City, in particular, has two realities: the reality of the physical environment, and the reality of the idea—of what the city and its diverse neighborhoods signify. Inseparably intertwined, these two realities constantly continue to inform each other. Pastiche is a dynamic data visualization that maps keywords from blog articles to the New York neighborhoods they are written in reference to, geographically positioned in a navigable, spatial view. Keywords are assigned based on relevance and recency, surrounding their corresponding neighborhoods. The result is a dynamically changing description of the city, formed around individual experiences and perspectives.”

Invisible Cities — A project by Christian Marc Schmidt & Liangjie Xia

“By revealing the social networks present within the urban environment, Invisible Cities describes a new kind of city—a city of the mind. It displays geocoded activity from online services such as Twitter and Flickr, both in real-time and in aggregate. Real-time activity is represented as individual nodes that appear whenever a message or image is posted. Aggregate activity is reflected in the underlying terrain: over time, the landscape warps as data is accrued, creating hills and valleys representing areas with high and low densities of data.” This project was inspired by The Naked City by Guy Debord.


What tools or frameworks are used to create works like these?
Schmidt answered Processing, an open sorce framework/javainterpreter for visual artists. Also, a lot of solutions are actually invented/designed for the specific project by companies who specialize in Data Visualization (read: proprietary solutions). This article says

If you absolutely refuse to touch any code, I suggest Many Eyes or one of the fine FD sponsors, but if you’re looking to get your hands dirty, Processing is a great place to start.

Jer Thorp, whose work we saw not too long ago, posts this introduction tutorial for data visualization with Processing.

I’m going to start from scratch, work through some examples, and (hopefully) make some interesting stuff. One of the nice things, I think, about this process, is that we’re going to start with fresh, new data – I’m not sure what kind of things we’re going to find once we start to get our hands dirty. This is what is really exciting about data visualization; the chance to find answers to your own, possibly novel questions.

The examples are straightforward, the results are interesting, and most importantly, it gives you a lot to work off of with your own data and geometry. Hopefully it’s the first post of many.

Do we lose meaning with so much of a focus on data?

There could be more sophisticated topics. That’s part of the challenge.

Google, perhaps, has the best interface there ever needs to be for controlling information. (Blogger’s note: I didn’t write down the question word, for word, so I am just trying to decipher my notes at this point.)

Schmidt answered, that search is just the beginning. Then comes comparison/context. Like when looking for a pair of shoes to buy on the internet, finding a pair isn’t enough. It’s the comparing afterwards to comfort yourself in the knowledge that you are getting a good deal. Interfaces should always have two paths, search and browse.

There were some other questions. Is  semantic “zoom” going to be the prevalent in the future? Yes, he said. Zoom gives you ability to adjust the scale of the data you’re looking at in a salient metaphor. Could the process be automated? Sure, but there’s a little bit of curation in data visualizaztion, mostly to eliminate the uninteresting like the “um’s” and “the’s.” Are interfaces like Pastiche going to go mainstream? No. It’s experimental. Good interfaces are accessible and user friendly. However, Pastiche could span task-oriented in applications.


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