July 21, 2015

Written by:


From digging into data visualization libraries to exploring the capabilities of custom shaders, folks at Fathom are always looking for ways to improve their computing skills. This summer, several of us are learning Python.

Teaching isn’t completely new to me—I spent the last two years researching computer science curriculums for kids—but leading a class full of information designers certainly is. As the Summer 2015 Python Friday instructor, I’ve been exploring creative ways to teach high level programming to Fathomites with limited formal coding experience.

Rather than focusing on how certain projects are coded up, the Python Friday lesson series takes a “bottom up” approach with a focus on combining “powerful ideas” with “language design.”

Powerful ideas are concepts that appear in many programming languages and environments, including Python. Common paradigms like conditionals and iteration, each a powerful idea, serve as fundamental building blocks of computation.


These ideas are particularly powerful in combination. For example, say we have a list of city populations. With iteration, we can do useful things like print all of the populations, sum them, or find their average. But if we add conditionals to our computational repertoire, we can solve more specific problems like printing all the populations within a certain range, finding the average population of the cities in a specific region, or determining the two cities nearest each other out of the list’s one hundred most populous.

During lessons, when we approach a new problem with Python code, we discuss which powerful ideas will be required to arrive at a solution. We also think about the scope of what is “computable” with the set of powerful ideas we’ve covered, and how they can be brought to life with Python’s syntax and keywords. By highlighting these ideas, I hope that students can use them to break down problems into manageable parts as well as recognize which tools are necessary to solve them.


The second theme of these lessons is learning to think about a programming language as the result of many design decisions. I was particularly excited about this topic because many Python Friday students are professional designers!

One aspect of programming that can bother beginners is the equals sign. “I never saw anything like x = x + 1 in my middle school math classes!” Why use an equals sign when it already stands for something familiar?

It turns out that some programming languages actually use the notation := instead of =. From a design standpoint, the additional colon helps denote that := means something different than = and could perhaps make learning programming a bit easier for first-timers. However, from the perspective of a practitioner that writes lots of code, typing := thousands of times per day is much less efficient than simply typing =. It may also be easier to read a program without hundreds of colons on the screen.

Programming languages aren’t perfect—far from it—and they aren’t very old either. By engaging with these design tradeoffs and their history, I hope to help my students become both proficient and critical programmers that view languages as systems that can be improved with their participation.

Currently, we’re four sessions deep and the Friday crew has plenty left to learn. Despite this, some of them are already realizing Python’s immediate potential as a language for writing quick programs on the fly. In the past week I’ve been delighted to see little Python projects popping up around the office (check out the Processing sketches in Python mode above!). Who knows? Maybe a student project will inspire its own blog post down the road…

July 07, 2015

Written by:


In between the release of No Ceilings and working on Space Monkeys & Tiger Wine, I visited Kew Gardens, home to the most diverse collection of plant species in the world. While reading up on the gardens in preparation for my trip, I came upon a recent paper by four female researchers looking at the gender gap in the field of botany.

The researchers took every plant name in the International Plant Names Index (IPNI), and determined the gender of the original botanist who discovered and named each species. The results showed that while “approximately 20% of scholarly authors between 1900 and 2000 were female…female authors account for 5% of the new plant species names published during that time period.” In total, fewer than 3% of land plant species have been named and published by women.

The gender gap in botany is particularly interesting because botany has historically been seen as a “feminine” science. As noted in the paper, women’s lack — or flat out denial– of access to publication services and resources may have contributed to the infrequency of their new naming publications. Beatrix Potter, for example, was forbidden from presenting her paper, On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, at the Linnean Society in 1897, since women could not attend Society meetings. The gender gap in botany still persists, however it has become one of the smallest gaps in the sciences, with female botanists naming about 4 species for every 5 named by their male counterparts.

It would be great to see more research published within this vein, and used as a reference point for how the gender gap persists in access to academic resources, research opportunities, and availability of publishing and distribution.

On a related note, the data source for our most recent National Geographic project keeps record of international plant trade. In our early explorations for the project, we looked at both animals and plants and found that Woronow’s snowdrop (Galanthus woronowii), named in honor of Russian botanist Georg Woronow, was the most traded plant in 2013.

Snowdrops in general (Galanthus spp.) contain the substance galantamine, which can be used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Though I missed their blooming season, I was able to find the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) in the Kew Gardens Rock Garden.

The common snowdrop can be found in the Rock Garden at Kew Gardens.
The common snowdrop can be found in the Rock Garden at Kew Gardens.

A lot of our work digs deep into one area of expertise, so it’s pretty amazing when we can find ways they intersect. Who knows, maybe our interest in food will combine with our love of television next…

July 02, 2015

Written by:


We’re pleased to announce the release of the No Ceilings data… in 3D. Yes, we know everything is cooler in 3D (the IMAX, Jurassic World, printing, real life), but our decision to represent the No Ceilings map as a 3D globe for mobile devices is better attributed to the design and processing limitations of phones rather than an attempt at enhancing our street cred.

For those unfamiliar, we recently launched a project for the Clinton Foundation and the Gates Foundation titled No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project, which measures twenty years of the progress and setbacks of women and girls around the world. In addition to the series of data-driven visualizations, the desktop version contains a map populated by roughly 850,000 data points from more than 190 countries over 20 years. Though the site is responsive to mobile screen sizes, we had yet to find a solution for making the exploratory map experience work on the phone.

The 3D globe takes a subset of well-populated indicators from the No Ceilings dataset, and represents the information from country to country on a spinning, zoomable globe. By sliding your finger across the screen, you can rotate the globe east, west, north, or south to see how stats vary by location. You can pinch and release your fingers to zoom in and out, and swipe across the top of the screen to select from a variety of topics.

The globe uses color differently to summarize both numeric and categorical data. Looking at numeric data like, say, the representation of women in national parliament, you can see that countries with bright green coloring (e.g. Rwanda, ringing in with the all-time high of 56.3%) have higher percentages of women in parliament, whereas countries with the dimmer blue tones (e.g. the U.S. at 17.8%) show areas with less female representation. The color gradient represents the fluidity of the scale, from high values (bright green) to low values (dark blue).

The categorical data, on the other hand, uses less of a gradient, and better demonstrates classification differences from country to country. Taking availability of paid leave as an example, countries are divided into three different groupings: those where paid leave is available for both parents (teal), for mothers only (blue), and those where it’s not available at all (yellow). Yellow is used to indicate countries where paid leave is not provided for by the government, and calls attention to the lack of important legislation.

Building the map as a rotating globe with zoom allowed us to design around the narrow spatial restrictions of a mobile screen. The globe was developed for WebGL using the Three.js library. In addition to letting us project the globe in 3D, WebGL allows us to maximize performance on mobile devices with low powered processors. This keeps the globe’s animations snappy and responsive to user interaction through thousands of calculations per second.

An increasing number of people use their mobile phones as a source of immediate on-the-go information, so while the available surface area and processing capacity may be smaller than a desktop computer, it’s important we design and develop websites, tools, and applications that are better catered to the ways that audiences consume information. While we certainly wouldn’t expect a user to explore all 850,000 data points from a mobile device, finding ways to tailor information to the mobile experience remains a priority. As devices are getting smarter, design and development need to move in parallel. So grab your phone, take a spin, and check out the progress.

June 23, 2015

Written by:


In celebration of the 40th anniversary and special re-release of the famous movie that made us afraid to swim in the ocean, we present Jawsography, an interactive app that analyzes the cinematography of the 1975 film, Jaws.

I’ve always been fascinated by the art direction and cinematography in Spielberg’s classic film. While he executes many amazing filmmaking techniques throughout the movie, the strong compositional shifts from the left, center, and right hand side of each frame are striking. 

I wanted to see if the actual compositional shifts were as strong as my initial memories watching the film, so we built a tool that allowed us to look at all the frames of the movie. We started by looking at 1 frame per 10 seconds of film, but we ended up with too many transitional frames. The final app pulls 1 frame per minute of film.

Jaws at 1 frame per minute

The compositional patterns started to emerge pretty clearly. We built another tool that allowed us to cycle through the frames quickly, and mark which ones had left, center, or right visual weight. In due time, we began describing the positioning with nautical nomenclature: Port and Starboard.

I had so much fun swiping through the frames and determining which compositional weight was the strongest that I managed to wrangle most of the office into another boondoggle. I was determined to bring the app into reality. Quickly Jawsography was born. Take a look on your mobile device (or laptop) to see the cinematography of Jaws in a whole new way. Dive in!

June 23, 2015

Written by:


Yet another year passed, and all the studio gathered to celebrate our favorite mathematical constant in commemoration of Tau Day!


No matter your mathematical orientation, at Fathom we are open to all kinds of numerical beliefs and points of view. But when it comes to circle constants, we are heavily biased.

Last week, we hosted our second FiesTau party in preparation for the imminent advent of Tau Day. We know, we know, it was a week before 6/28, but it can be complicated to coordinate that many people

Last year we celebrated Tau Day big time: we released Peep in Tau, an app that lets you find any sequence of digits in the first 100,000,000 decimal positions of Tau. We also submitted an entry that was accepted on the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, the “sequence of positions of consecutive 9’s in Tau’s decimals,” inspired by the Feynman Point. It was an amazing evening!

Per tradition, this year we kicked off celebrations with Mark and Kim’s graceful contribution of the yummiest strawberry, rhubarb, and apple pies. Remember, you always need at least two pies for a full tau day.

The Half Tau Pie ;)
A Half Tau Pie ;)

Thanks to James, we had a full set of Fathom Tau Day 2015 Tau-Shirts for the whole team. Keep a lookout for their possible release on Provender…?

Fathom Tauday 2015 Tau-Shirts

James was also kind enough to give us a private preview of a soon-to-be-released app based on a highly acclaimed 70’s movie. Can’t say much more at the moment, but sufficient to say that if you enjoyed Rocky Morphology, this one is going to blow your mind. (Edit: it is out! Please dive into Jawsography!)

The peak of the evening came with the yearly recreation of Taupardy!, our very own crafted Jeopady-inspired Tau quiz game. With a brand new panel featuring new categories and questions, I must say this year was much tougher than the previous one. And I must also say, my expectations were highly surpassed by my fellows… Well done guys, you are the nerdiest! ;)

Taupardy 2015!
Jose Trebek hosting the show.
The Fathom team killing it.
74.5% success rate!

In celebration of this year’s new incarnation of Taupardy!, we decided to clean it up a little and make the code open-source for our 2014 and 2015 panels! You can find the game on this github repository. Enjoy Taupardy! on your own Tau Day festivities, and let us know about them via Twitter, at @fathominfo. Oh, and feel free to pull any panels you may design to the repo and share them with the community!

Final countdown to open sourcing Taupardy!
And there it goes, out to the world!

We were very happy to have Malika Khurana, one of our former interns, visit us for the occasion. She shared some of her latest work with us, illustrating her journey from an engineering to art based approach to design.

Malika Khurana presenting her latest interventions

We wrapped up the evening (well, not really, but the rest shouldn’t be disclosed…) with our traditional photoshoot, which for some reason turned out kind of ‘gangstau’…


We recently found out Michael Hartl featured some of our shenanigans on the latest State of the Tau report… ;)

And that’s all folks! Just remember, it is never too late to reconsider which dimension of the circle you advocate for.

Happy Tau Day 2015 from the Fathom team!

Happy Tau Day 2015 from the Fathom team!
Happy Tau Day 2015 from the Fathom team!

June 16, 2015

Written by:


We’re pleased to announce the launch of our latest project, Space Monkeys and Tiger Wine: A Look at Global Animal Trade. Built for National Geographic, the project explores the quantity, purpose, and primary locations of trade for thousands of animal species around the globe. Between the exchange of duck livers for homeopathic flu medication, ground turtle shells for anti-aging remedies, and deer glands for their fragrant musk, more than 27 million animals were traded worldwide for reasons you’ve possibly (and we had certainly) never imagined.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 2.21.26 PM

The final visualization breaks down the quantity of trade at different levels of the taxonomic hierarchy. Users can compare the trade of animal classes (e.g. reptiles, birds, fish), animal orders (e.g. alligators, snakes, turtles), and individual species (e.g. false map turtle, leopard tortoise, Chinese pond turtle).

We dealt with trade at a vast range of scales, and balanced animals exchanged by the millions with those traded by the tens or hundreds. Giving the tree map a zoom feature allowed us to represent animals on the same scale without distorting the depiction of those on the highest or lowest ends of the spectrum. Plus representing 4,100 medicinal leeches for every whale shark in a single view seemed as if it would suggest a misguided comparison.

In addition to the central quantitative representation, a hollowed pie chart (some call it a donut) enables users to explore the stranger qualitative oddities surrounding animal trade. Hovering over the chart shows the variety of ways animals are used (or consumed, exhibited, studied, domesticated, skinned, woven, schmeared, etc.) in the international market. American black bears, for instance, are traded for their teeth, skulls, hair, gallbladders, as trophies, and live. 85% of tiger trade, on the other hand, is for purposes in traditional Chinese medicine.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 2.22.45 PM
By hovering over different elements on the right-hand chart, users can see shared uses for different species. Here you can see all carnivorous mammals used for medicine.

The visualization also shows the top three importers and exporters of each animal, so users can get a geographic understanding of the main channels of trade. France is the primary exporter of the muscovy duck, the most traded bird in 2013. After digging further, we learned that a French homeopathic manufacturing company produces a drug from the duck’s liver and heart, and the flu medication is widely circulated worldwide. While the geography of trade didn’t turn out to be our most compelling point, it certainly made for a useful way to contextualize the data.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 2.23.40 PM
99% of muscovy duck trade is for medicinal purposes, nearly all exports are from France (likely from the homeopathic drug manufacturer, Boiron).

The project sources data from the CITES (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Trade Database. The full database holds over 13 million records of more than 34,000 plant and animal species. The data we explored includes the trade of all animals listed in CITES’ appendix II, which contains animals that are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but that may be if their trade goes unmonitored.

If you feel uneasy about what you’ve read but strangely compelled to learn more, visit the site. Share it with your friends. Talk about it later over a glass of tiger wine and some turtle jelly laden toast, if that’s your thing.

June 10, 2015

Written by:

Topics: ,

Last weekend I participated in an annual Bike-A-Thon hosted by Bikes Not Bombs, which is a non-profit that runs youth programs in the Boston area. The organization teaches kids how to build and fix bicycles, and they also run an international program that sends bikes to developing regions in Africa.

We thought the Bike-A-Thon would be a nice opportunity to support a local organization that’s also doing great work abroad. Once my team reached our fundraising goal with the amazing support from family and friends, the Fathom poster fund matched our numbers. At Fathom we design and sell posters as a side project to raise proceeds for various charities near and far. You can read more on that here, but the poster fund was a great way to bring Fathom into the fold of the Bikes Not Bombs program.

Data Insights

  • My pace was 12.9mph, that’s comparable to the fastest marathon runner ever (and yet I was on two wheels).
  • My total energy output according to Strava was 977 kiloJoules (kJ). If I had somehow powered that into my apartment, I could have saved $1.15 on my electric bill.
  • My elevation change was 1,362 feet which I learned is the exact same height as the One World Observatory, on the top of One World Trade Center.

It was great to see so many people coming together for the Bikes Not Bombs cause. We hope to grow the team for next year’s event. Until then, we’ll be installing more bike racks in the office to accommodate some new members of the Fathom team!

May 21, 2015

Written by:


This week has been filled with some exciting travel and speaking opportunities for the Fathom team. Ben teamed up with Chelsea Clinton in NYC to give a talk at Internet week, and Teri, Alex, and I spent a day in D.C. presenting our work at the World Bank Group.

Ben and Chelsea Clinton presenting at Internet Week, New York, NY

Internet Week celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit and global impact of technology on business, entertainment and culture. Ben took the opportunity to present the process of translating 850,000 data points into a series of accessible, compelling, and interactive stories that live on a larger content platform. He also previewed some of our current work in progress; we are optimizing the No Ceilings map to run on mobile devices using WebGL. Soon users will be able to navigate a 3D globe to access and share the No Ceilings data.

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 11.32.00 AM
3D No Ceilings map running on mobile

A few other folks from the office headed to D.C. to present a few projects to the World Bank Group. The event was organized jointly by the India Country Management Unit and the Social Inclusion Global Solutions Group. We spoke about some of the custom tools we created to analyze the data for What the World Eats and No Ceilings. The folks at the World Bank were both excited and surprised to find that 13% of the indicators used for No Ceilings had come from their World Bank Open Data catalogue.

Alex and James outside the World Bank Group’s headquarters. Washington, D.C.

We also had a great dialogue around Open India 2.0, a project we created for the the World Bank Group’s Country Partnership Strategy with India. Open India navigates the progress and challenges of one of the world’s most populous nations by tracking the development of hundreds of projects and knowledge activities across three areas of engagement.

Landing page screen shot of Open India 2.0
Landing page of Open India 2.0

We’re grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the process and progress of some of our recent projects. Keep an eye out for the Fathom road show heading towards a town near you.

May 14, 2015

Written by:


We aren’t a poster company, but over the years our love of print has driven us to design a collection of printed artifacts (see Scaled in Miles, All StreetsDencity, and Frankenfont). Our print explorations often occur alongside client work, and reflect the range of interests (and occasionally obsessions) of folks around the office. We donate all of the print-generated proceeds to charities.

Through Donors Choose, we helped schools purchase materials that we also enjoy using, like a projector. Here’s one of the thank-you letters from a sixth grader in Philadelphia.

A large portion of this year’s sales traffic came from a post on Reddit, a radio appearance on BBC Radio, and write-ups from WIRED, FastCo and Quartz. We’re thankful for the interest they’ve sparked, along with all of those who have generated traffic by word-of-mouth (or tweets). Any sharing of our printed work directly impacts the amount we’re able to give away.

We’ve made a point this year to donate to communities both at home and abroad. Read on to learn about the local, national, and international organizations we’ve selected for this year’s donations.


  • Girls Rock Boston empowers girls through musical education and performance (they’re like the movie School of Rock, but even more badass).
  • Food for Free distributes fresh produce to underserved communities in Boston (if you haven’t noticed, we’re enthusiastic about urban farming).
  • Somerville Homeless Coalition provides housing services, emergency shelters, food assistance, and case management to our local stomping grounds.


  • Donors Choose supports classrooms in high poverty districts with STEM-related books and art supplies (we’re talking textbooks, crayons, 3D printers, the whole works).


  • Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) gives emergency aid to those affected by armed conflict, epidemics, healthcare exclusion, and natural or man-made disasters.
  • Congo Medical Relief supports families of healthcare workers lost in the fight against Ebola (some of the heroes that worked with our friend, Pardis Sabeti).
  • Save the Children has a fund for helping children affected by the devastating earthquakes in Nepal.
  • Mercy Corps was on the ground in Nepal before the recent earthquakes, and their relief efforts are providing food, water, and other emergency supplies to survivors.

Some students sent us drawings of the art supplies they received (Donors Choose).

On behalf of the organizations in this year’s lineup, thank you for all for your orders! To learn about our donations in other years, see our previous post.

If you’re interested in purchasing a print, check out the 3rd floor (prints we stock and ship from our studio), All Streets collection (printed on demand in California), and Frankenfont (printed on demand from Blurb).

Thanks again from all of us at Fathom, and stay tuned for the next print in our collection.

May 07, 2015

Written by:


On April 25, 2015, a massive earthquake of magnitude 7.8 struck Nepal. Since then, multiple aftershock tremors of magnitude 6 and greater have caused devastating casualties and damage in Kathmandu and its neighboring areas. Papua New Guinea, too, was in close proximity to a 7.1-magnitude earthquake earlier today. As our thoughts are with the affected families and communities, we’ve updated our earthquakes web explorer with the most recent data to shed light on the immensity of the recent earthquakes and their aftershocks.

Please consider donating to local and international relief efforts.

Many of the world’s most densely populated areas sit along the most seismically risky locations. The Nepal earthquake was triggered by the release of escalating tension along major fault lines, where the plate containing most of Europe and Asia overrode the subducting India plate. The Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, home to more than one million people, sits just 48 miles southeast of the earthquake’s epicenter.

There have been four magnitude 6 earthquakes along the boundary of the India and Eurasia plates in the last century. In the last month alone, there have been 379 earthquakes between magnitude 4.5-9.0 around the world.

Our web application demonstrates that the most densely populated areas are often at the greatest risk for high magnitude earthquakes. Many of these high-risk regions require improved infrastructure that can sustain the frequenting tremors.

The Himalayan region is one of the most densely populated (light green) regions in the world, and also puts the residents at extremely high mortality risk (red).
The Himalayan region is one of the most densely populated (light green) regions in the world, and also puts the residents at extremely high mortality risk (red).

We hope our tool can act as a guide as to where we can focus future efforts to improve infrastructural and institutional preparedness. Please take the time to learn more, and support the international aid efforts where possible.