Monthly Archives: June 2013


I have been reading up on a number of data visualization projects recently, and I’m finding all sorts of interesting examples. A few can be found on the collaborative website of Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, two artists/designers/technologists who try to use technology in innovative ways to find stories that underlie the data. Their artist statement does a good job of summarizing why data visualization can play an increasingly important role in a world overflowing with information.

Our medium is data visualization, a technology developed by computer scientists to extract insights from raw numbers. This technique is ideal for investigating a world represented by digital traces, where truth is hidden in masses of information. The resulting studies take the form of web sites, prints, and videos.

At the same time, our artwork complicates and subverts a tool that is largely used by the business and military elite. Unlike these traditional uses, we believe visualization to be an expressive medium that invites emotion. We aim our tools at “data sets” that range from hip hop songs to Walt Whitman’s poetry, from arguments on Wikipedia to expressions of carnal desire. We strive to expand the practical craft of visualization beyond function to create objects of social engagement, pleasure and revelation.

Our process is driven by curiosity and a sense of adventure. Data is the starting point, followed by incessant questioning, with a touch of wonderment and laughter. Eventually we start to ask questions that can’t be answered by direct observation. At that point we begin to work in software code, creating a series of digital instruments—telescopes and microscopes of the abstract world—that reveal more than our own eyes can see.

As proponents of expressive visualization, we exploit the power of color and complexity to reveal arresting, unintuitive patterns. Parallel to depth of information, clarity and interactivity are of great concern to us. We strive to build intelligible visualizations that engage viewers at a formal level while allowing them to hold a dialogue with the underlying data. It is in this dialogue, we hope, that the brightest sparks of revelation will be found.


The limits of physics

Margaret Wertheim

Margaret Wertheim, science writer and co-founder of LA’s Institute for Figuring, has written an interesting piece for Aeon Magazine (here’s the link) on the limits of physics and mathematics as descriptive languages of the world. Challenging the idea that ‘physics is a progression towards an ever more accurate and encompassing Truth’, she adopts the viewpoint that, though mathematics has been extraordinarily useful in making sense of the natural world, it might still only be an imperfect framework that we have laid down on a much more complicated reality.

In order to articulate a more nuanced conception of what physics is, we need to offer an alternative to Platonism. We need to explain how the mathematics ‘arises’ in the world, in ways other than assuming that it was put there there by some kind of transcendent being or process. To approach this question dispassionately, it is necessary to abandon the beautiful but loaded metaphor of the cosmic book — and all its authorial resonances — and focus, not the creation of the world, but on the creation of physics as a science.

She talks about the development of physics as a science and a methodology and how it has been a progression in quantifying an ever increasing amount of the physical world. As more and more phenomena fall under the explanatory power of physics, there is a tendency among physicists to ‘believe that the mathematical relationships they discover in the world about us represent some kind of transcendent truth existing independently from, and perhaps a priori to, the physical world.’ But, she says, this doesn’t really give us the whole story.

We should be wary of claims about ultimate truth. While quantification, as a project, is far from complete, it is an open question as to what it might ultimately embrace. Let us look again at the colour red. Red is not just an electromagnetic phenomenon, it is also a perceptual and contextual phenomenon. Stare for a minute at a green square then look away: you will see an afterimage of a red square. No red light has been presented to your eyes, yet your brain will perceive a vivid red shape. As Goethe argued in the late-18th century, and Edwin Land (who invented Polaroid film in 1932) echoed, colour cannot be reduced to purely prismatic effects. It exists as much in our minds as in the external world. To put this into a personal context, no understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum will help me to understand why certain shades of yellow make me nauseous, while electric orange fills me with joy.

Her essay is not an argument against science, but against the obsession with quantitative measures, rigorous equations, and strict boundaries between natural elements. The universe might be messier than we give it credit for, and our attempts at categorization might lead more to confusion than to understanding.

Advice to young scientists

E. O. Wilson

Here’s a TED talk from renowned biologist E.O. Wilson in which he shares some thoughts from a book he has written called ‘Letters to a Young Scientist’. It’s pretty static as far as TED talks go, with Wilson standing at a lectern and reading from some prepared notes, but he speaks wonderfully and the advice he gives has the weight of his long career behind him. 

He starts off by explaining how import science and technology are to the current development of society. Science is in everything, and growing tremendously fast in scope and power.

“Humanity is now fully in the techno-scientific age. There is going to be no turning back… The revolution will continue for at least several more decades and will render the human condition radically different from what it is today.”

He recommends that scientists acquire breath in fields both near and distant from their own.

“In time all of science will come to be a continuum of description and explanation of networks of principles and laws”

And he has some words on mathematical literacy:

“If you are a bit short in mathematical skills, don’t worry. Many of the most successful scientists at work today are mathematically semi-literate.”

“Understand that mathematics is a language, ruled like verbal language generally by its own grammar and system of logic. Any person with average quantitative intelligence who learns to read and write mathematics at an elementary level, will, as in verbal languages, have little difficulty picking up most of the fundamentals if they choose to master the math-speak of most disciplines of science.”

On this last point, he speaks from experience. He learned calculus as a 32 year old tenured professor, sitting in classes with undergraduate students.

His talk can generally be summed up in two points. One, that humanity will need science and technology in the coming decades to address the multitude of problems that exist now and are likely to arise in the coming years. And two, anyone seeking to contribute to this undertaking should not be discouraged by their perceived lack of knowledge or skills, but should instead tackle whatever problems they find themselves best suited to handle.

Turning the tide on Big Data

There has been a lot in the news recently about the US government’s monitoring of phone calls and internet data. The National Security Agency is collecting millions of phone records and tapping directly into the servers of some of the biggest internet companies and extracting emails, chat logs, and a variety of other information in what is likely the biggest surveillance program in history.

This program is one example of a world-wide 21st-century phenomenon: the creation, collection, and processing of massive amounts of data. The existence of all this data is a very new thing. In the wrong hands and with the wrong intentions it can be used to control and suppress. But the flip side to that coin is that in the right hands, big data can be used to expand our comprehension of the world and open up new frontiers of knowledge.

In his TED talk (called the ‘Beauty of Data Visualization’, found here), information designer David McCandless talks about a phrase that has arisen to describe this situation: ‘Data is the new oil’. There is a lot to this analogy. Data, like oil, can be used to power incredible machines of advancement and technological progress. But because it is associated with such power, it becomes a very valuable resource, and there are bound to be struggles over who collects and controls it. McCandless actually prefers a different phrase: ‘Data is the new soil’. He prefers to think of this wealth of data as a fertile landscape from which beautiful and useful things emerge, if only they are cultivated in the right way.

As an example of the power of data to create a more balanced picture of the world, take a look at this TED video, in which Hans Rosling urges people to ‘let the data set change your mindset’ (Gapminder, his website, aims to do the same). In the video and on the website, Rosling attempts to eliminate out-dated ideas of enormous discrepancies between the Western world and the rest of it by showing just how far developing countries have come in the last fifty years. The use of data in this way is really about establishing a fact-based worldview – overcoming prejudice and replacing obsolete information.

This shows just a little bit of what is possible with good data. But where does this data come from, and how do you get it? Not everyone has the resources of the US government to collect whatever data they want. Or do they?

The mission of the Open Knowledge Foundation is to open up information around the world and ‘see it used and useful’. As part of the open government movement, the open data movement is largely about attempting to balance out the information flow between citizens and the state by pushing the government to open up more of its data to the public. There are a variety of resources that have been created for finding this information: among them (US government) and (a list of data catalogs from around the world). I don’t know much about accessing and using this information, but it’s something I plan to learn more about.

As always, there are tenuous lines that must be walked between the usefulness of making data public and the necessity of keeping private lives private. I don’t think there are easy answers here. The boundaries between one side and the other are likely going to shift back and forth for quite some time.

Besides the question of when is it alright to collect data in the first place, the possession of this data opens up other questions. What do you do with it all? How do you process it efficiently? How do you visualize it effectively? Big data is a big topic – its collection, analysis, and visualization – and it’s something I hope to look into more.

Just to see what kinds of creativity there can be in simply taking a little bit of data and putting some life into it, and the enormous variety of ways to do this, check out these data visualization projects.