100,000 Stars is an online visualization of our solar system’s nearest neighboring stars. It was created by Google’s Data Arts Team (see a write-up of the project here). Although it is perhaps a bit difficult to extract specific useful information from this site, it provides an interesting perspective on our place in the universe, a self-portrait of our galaxy (or at least some subset of it) that could only be possible with a computer visualization.
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.