July 23, 2014

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Despite unprecedented economic growth over the last fifty years, India is still home to one-third of the world’s poor. Our latest project with the World Bank Group explores the Country Partnership Strategy for India (CPS) — a multi-billion dollar investment aimed at ending extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity in one of the world’s most populous countries over the next five years.

India’s economic and social growth have been strong for many decades, but the nation still faces a number of development challenges. The economic infrastructure can’t yet support the growth needed to lift the population out of poverty. City and municipal services are strained as India experiences one of largest rural-to-urban migrations in history. Many states still face challenges related to health and nutrition, education, social protection, and skills development.

The original CPS strategy was published as a book

The CPS began life in the form of a book. Our task was to create an experience that highlights the progress and obstacles facing the nation as it seeks to lift one-third of the world’s poor out of poverty. We were excited to take on the challenge of navigating the strategy’s complex structure, and finding a way for users to understand the progress that has been made, and the goals the country still faces.

Open India on iPad

The CPS is organized around three areas of engagement — integration, transformation, and inclusion. Nineteen country-level outcomes are grouped loosely within these areas, and represent high-level objectives within the World Bank Group’s strategy. Each outcome is measured by one or more results indicators, and the app is designed to change over time to reflect progress in each of these metrics. These outcomes and indicators help the World Bank Group track the progress of  hundreds of projects and knowledge activities taking place across India.

The tool enables users to measure progress by exploring the number of projects, the amount of funding, and the set of states influenced within each engagement area, outcome, or indicator. Further, the site contextualizes the World Bank Group’s goals through the lens of existing challenge areas, focus states, gender equality, and urbanization.

July 11, 2014

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Lo and behold, on the first official Urban Agriculture Day in the City of Boston, we are excited to release our latest project, urb.ag. The tool enables users to find locations where they can pursue different urban agriculture activities around the city. By selecting a specific location, you can see which farming opportunities are available, and which actions you’ll need to take to start a commercial farm in Boston. 

Thanks to the Knight Prototype Fund, today we announced the release of our latest site, urb.ag, alongside the Groundbreaking celebration of Boston’s first commercial urban farm.

Whether you’d like to keep honey bees on the roof, hens on the ground, or a freight container garden, the site describes the steps needed to start any type of commercial agriculture activity. Here at Fathom, we’re seeing what we can do to start a rooftop hydroponics system (though we’ll have to run this by the Boston Landmarks Commission because we’re located in a historic district, and probably by our landlord because we’re not especially wily).


The location of Boston’s first commercial farm.

By toggling between roof and ground levels, selecting different structures, and choosing various activities– soil plants, aquaponics, aquaculture, hydroponics, beekeeping, hen keeping, and composting– you can see the zoning considerations that apply to each lot, the permitting applications you’ll need to complete, and the commissions you’ll need to contact to get the ball rolling.


We celebrated the site’s release today alongside Urban Agriculture Day, and the groundbreaking of the city’s first commercial urban farm, the Garrison-Trotter Farm in Roxbury. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh was there to celebrate and announce the occasion.

The project actually began with a tweet from former Boston mayor, Tom Menino a year ago. Terrence, our in-house farmer/ professional pickle maker, shared the tweet with the rest of the team, and we decided that the legislative changes taking place opened a tremendous opportunity to improve local engagement with urban farming. We partnered up with the Mayor’s Office of Food Initiatives, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and other folks from the City of Boston to integrate municipal zoning code with the recent legislation, Article 89. After receiving support from the Knight Prototype Fund, we set out to make the legislation more navigable and transparent to those interested in urban farming.

Grab your phone, tablet, or open up a (narrow) screen on your browser to find the nearest location to start a commercial farm. We’ve optimized the tool for mobile and tablet devices, which forced us to prioritize the information that ‘s most important for users. Try it out, and get growing!


June 25, 2014

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We have been very busy lately in preparation for the upcoming Tau Day. Last week, the whole office gathered around two pies to honor our favorite mathematical constant!


No matter your numerical orientation, at Fathom we are open to all kinds of mathematical beliefs and points of view.

During the development of Peek in Pi, I pointed out the ongoing debate about the circle constant. The current standard relates the circle’s circumference to its diameter (which is what π stands for), though many people claim that it would be more convenient to relate the circle’s circumference to its radius (also referred to as τ). When I discovered that TAU was already a constant in the Processing ecosystem, though, the nerd in me couldn’t have been any happier.

Last week (or half tau months after the Peek in Pi release), we hosted a FiesTau party in our office to prepare for the advent of Tau Day, and to honor the enlightenment of this constancy with the same rejoicing and delight we embrace it with.

Mark and his wife Kim were kind enough to provide us with two whole pies for the event, because we simply couldn’t have a Tau party without lavish food and libations. Fortunately they didn’t use a certain pie pan they own that has an imprint of the digits of half tau…

Two pies for a full tau day
Mark seemingly confused by the math…

We took this opportunity to release the latest creation from the Fathom foundry: Peep in Tau, a new take on searching numbers within the digits of well-known mathematical constants.

Official release of our new Peep in Tau app
Peep in Tau on Google Play
Peep in Tau on an Android tablet

But the climax of this soirée began when we started playing Taupardy!

Main Taupardy! panel, with categories: “Digitaus”, “Geometrau”, “Dusting off the books”, “Rationalitau”, “Feynman point” and “Popular culture”
“Alex, ‘Feynman point’ for $1000 please!”
The correct answer, now OEIS sequence A243955

We took one of the questions (or answers), “The sequence of positions of consecutive 9′s in Tau’s decimals”, as an opportunity to play around with our new app, learn more about the Feynman Point, and submit the sequence as an entry to the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. After an exhaustive review process, the sequence was accepted, though sadly it was stripped of most references to Tau as an independent constant.

The evening finished with a mandatory team photo shoot, with everyone properly attired in brand new Tau-shirts gracefully designed by James. Yes, this is how we roll.

The Fathom team
A new 3*Tau constant…?

I have to say it was a memorable evening, full of joy, fun facts, gracious tau-puns, and lovely geekiness.

Just remember, it is never too late to reconsider which dimension of the circle you advocate for.

Happy Tau Day from the Fathom team!


June 18, 2014

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Fathom received a Knight Prototype grant which provided us the opportunity to embark on a collaborative project with the City of Boston. Last week, we traveled to Pittsburgh to present our Urban Agriculture project at Knight Demo Day.

Chris Barr and Megan Zimroth from the Knight Foundation kick off the “ignite” demo talks, where each team has 5 minutes to present with 20 slides auto advancing every 15 seconds.

Demo Day was a chance for all participants of the Knight Prototype Fund to present their projects to each other. There were 21 presentations in all, and it was great to see what other teams were working on. To name a few, Kids Making Sense was a project that gave kids air quality monitoring sensors to measure air quality around their cities; Ride Louisville identified biking arteries through a mobile app and referred to them as metro lines to encourage more biking infrastructure; and Market Metrics gathered and summarized key metrics for farmers market managers through a visual report tailored to the interests of their community.

For our project, Alex and I built a user-friendly app that integrates zoning data with new legislation so Boston residents can identify spaces that can accommodate commercial agricultural ventures within the city (stay tuned for the app release at the end of this month).

Alex talks about the areas with no zoning designation that we sought to identify with the awesome folks at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Last year we completed a project for Knight around the growing Civic Tech market.  Now we have found ourselves involved in that very market, helping to make government data more open and accessible for the public.

Pittsburg is the best city in the U.S. according to multiple cab drivers we met. For example their ballpark stadium (PNC Park) was rated number one.

June 17, 2014

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Today Mark and I took another trip to Harvard to speak at Beautiful Data, a two week summer institute hosted by metaLAB at Harvard University. The institute is supported by the Getty Foundation and is a workshop to help curators and historians tell stories with open art collections.



We discussed a wide range of projects and processes from Nike to GE to Miles Davis to convey our understanding of audience, authorship and archives as it pertains to storytelling and data visualization. We were able to enjoy most of the morning sessions and engage with some really interesting dialogue from art historians and museum professionals. It was interesting to hear their perspectives on how they work with data.

Thanks to Yanni Loukissas for inviting us. Enjoy the rest of the workshop.

June 13, 2014

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When Andrés isn’t contemplating the future of Processing or writing about OpenGL shaders, he has been leading the development of Mirador, a tool that provides an overview of large datasets, by visualizing their underlying dependency structures and identifying groups of explanatory variables.

So far Mirador has been exploring health datasets beginning with NHANES, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Every other year, they travel the United States with a fleet of mobile examination rooms to survey 10,000 participants on hundreds of questions and factors. The result is an enormous, but well-developed database used by medical researchers in a number of fields. As a result many research papers are based on NHANES data. Using Mirador within a couple minutes you can take one of these research papers, adjust the variable parameters, and see the correlation that the paper is discussing.

Some of the powerful features of Mirador are the algorithms running behind the scenes and the speed at which parameters can be adjusted, sorted, and browsed simultaneously.

As a simple example, let’s look at the Titanic. By adjusting outcome (i.e. “Survival”) we see how the correlation between gender and class of the passengers changes.

The best way to get started is to read the manual and open one of the examples after downloading the app from the homepage.

June 05, 2014

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Last week Ben spoke at the Thomson Reuters Knowledge Worker Innovation Series. Hosted by Mona Vernon, Vice President of the Data Innovation Lab at Thomson Reuters, the series is intended to bring together innovators and entrepreneurs who are interested in understanding how knowledge work is evolving.

To name just a few topics that were covered, Ben talked about how insight can be gained from large data sources through dynamic and interactive visualizations; the integrative process the folks at Fathom use to navigate, explain, and visualize information; and how each visualization conveys the unique properties and stories of the data it represents.

Check out the full talk when you have time, or get a sneak a peak from the highlight reel. You can even make yourself some finger sandwiches to pretend you were at the real thing!

May 15, 2014

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With two visitors and a weeklong culinary tour* of Beacon Hill, we’ve had a busy few weeks here at Fathom.

The excitement began with a visit from Fio Omenetto, a Professor of Biomedical Engineering and head of the laboratory for Ultrafast Nonlinear Optics and Biophotonics at Tufts University. He’s also been spearheading an exploration of the use of silk as a material platform for photonics, optoelectronics and high-technology applications.

Mark first happened upon Fio in the waiting room of their kids’ piano lessons. In their shared 60 minute window each Saturday afternoon, Fio stared over Mark’s shoulder at the step-by-step development of Scaled in Miles, and in return described the biomedical applications of silk. It was only a matter of time before Mark lured Fio and one of his researchers, Benedetto Marelli, into the Fathom studio to tell us about their exciting work.

In his lab, Fio and his team have been repurposing silk for a multitude of domains. Silk fibroin, extracted from silkworm cocoons, is a unique biopolymer that’s sustainable, biodegradable, edible, safe to implant in the human body, and technological. Silk can be used as a sustainable material to preserve food, a naturally degradable means of implanting vaccines into the human body, a means of containing and preserving otherwise degradable materials and medicines (say goodbye to the modern refrigerator), a time-release ink for printing, and a myriad of other impressive applications.

Fio, James, Ben, and Benedetto talk about silk and the human genome
Fio, James, Ben, and Benedetto talk about silk and the human genome

Stay tuned for our upcoming developments in silk cutlery and silk-printed posters—they’re going to be huge.

In the latter half of the week, Andrés brought in a friend and active member of the Processing community, Evelyn Eastmond. Evelyn has been working as a software engineer and designer on the Scratch project at the MIT Media Lab for the last seven years. Scratch is a tool that teaches kids how to program interactive stories, games, and animations by giving them the conceptual framework they need to start coding. She’s also currently a faculty member of the Digital + Media program at RISD.

Evelyn came in to share her experience as a developer-turned-designer, or in her own words, she’s a “coder and artist interested in the elegance of abstraction both in coding, as a way to describe complex software systems, and in painting, as a way to describe a personal, visual language.” We’re also excited about the developments she’s been making in p5.js.

We closed out Evelyn’s visit (and celebrated the fourth meal of our culinary tour) with some tasty fare from a local Indian joint.

Evelyn, Fathom, and an assortment of vindaloos.

Thanks to all of our visitors for sharing their work with us, we hope you stop by again soon!


*Henceforth known as the annual Taste of Colubri

May 06, 2014

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Sina Najafi, editor-in-chief of Cabinet, contacted us about including our project Colorful Language to serve as a visual explanation of the World Color Survey data, the topic of an essay in the new issue. Cabinet is a quarterly non-profit publication about art and culture based in Brooklyn, NY.

The essay, entitled “Color Primitive: Hue, language, and semantic universals”, by Josh Berson discusses the ongoing anthropological debate between “relativism” and “universalism”, or how language and thought affect each other. Color terms are studied because diverse cultures share their common existence.


Last weekend I visited the Cabinet offices and sat down to discuss the essay with Sina. While there he told me a story about acquiring some of the images.

He contacted former field worker, Thomas Headland, now Senior Anthropology Consultant at SIL International, who traveled the world collecting data from indigenous cultures in the 1980s resulting in the fascinating World Color Survey.

Sina asked him if he still had the field kit containing the 330 color chips, a thirty-year-old piece that has stood the test of time. Only then did Thomas recall that the field kit was not in his possession, as he had lent it to a friend. After some time, Thomas was able to relocate the kit and graciously sent some photos to Cabinet, but the new issue had already gone to press.

Although Cabinet wasn’t able to obtain these images in time for print, I am pleased to provide a supplement to the article by including these images below, courtesy of Thomas Headland.

"You have been provided with two sets of color stimuli. Both are contained in the 14–1/2" x 7–1/2" metal box. Please open the box now." (World Color Term Survey: Instructions to Field Workers, 1976)
“You have been provided with two sets of color stimuli. Both are contained in the 14–1/2″ x 7–1/2″ metal box. Please open the box now.” (World Color Term Survey: Instructions to Field Workers, 1976)
"You will find inside the box a piece of cardboard on which a large number of circular color patches of 1/4" diameter have been pasted. Please put this aside for the moment. In the box you will now see that there are are six trays containing color chips enclosed in glass slide cases. There are 330 of these chips." (World Color Term Survey: Instructions to Field Workers, 1976)
“You will find inside the box a piece of cardboard on which a large number of circular color patches of 1/4″ diameter have been pasted. Please put this aside for the moment. In the box you will now see that there are are six trays containing color chips enclosed in glass slide cases. There are 330 of these chips.” (World Color Term Survey: Instructions to Field Workers, 1976)
"The object is to get the informant to name, preferably with a single word, each of the 330 chips. This task should take about 40 minutes... ...It should be performed on a sunny day if possible in the shade, not in direct sunlight." (World Color Term Survey: Instructions to Field Workers, 1976)
“The object is to get the informant to name, preferably with a single word, each of the 330 chips. This task should take about 40 minutes… …It should be performed on a sunny day if possible in the shade, not in direct sunlight.” (World Color Term Survey: Instructions to Field Workers, 1976)
Thomas Headland holds a color chip while recording the response that corresponds to the number on the reverse side of the chip.
Thomas Headland holds a color chip while recording the response that corresponds to the number on the reverse side of the chip.

As you can see, this artifact was designed to withstand the hardships of world travel, and has maintained its structure and form. Seeing the physical tool for gathering the data also puts this project into context, where sometimes field research feels hard to grasp, but I assure you this is not one of those times.

Copies of the issue are available here or at your local bookstore.

May 02, 2014

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We’re excited about our recent release of NikeFuel Weather Activity, a website that connects billions of 2013 Nike+ FuelBand activity data points with localized weather data. In continuation of our study of movement patterns from the 2013 year in NikeFuel, we overlaid 2013 weather data on a map of the U.S. to see how temperature, rain, and snow impact physical activity. We’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on some of the processes that went into the design and development of the site.

First, let’s talk about the data

The data was culled from 6600 weather stations courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). We used the Global Summary of the Day (GSOD) data, but every station had incomplete data, so we had to continuously adjust to the mosaic of stations to derive an accurate picture of temperature.

Map of weather stations

Starting with a list of US zip codes, we mapped out latitude and longitude using data available from ESRI. We used that to connect each anonymized FuelBand user’s zip code to the nearest weather station that contained daily weather data.

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 5.59.10 PM
Login screen for personal data section

For the personal section of the site, we used more granular data sets provided by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDE), which contained hourly temperature information. Instead of using the daily NikeFuel numbers that made up the map, we broke down personal NikeFuel into fifteen-minute intervals à la YearInNikeFuel.com. With the lookup logic for zip codes already in place, we had already completed the code needed to link individuals to the nearest NCDC weather station.

Now, let’s talk about the design

We presented the 3D map to Nike a while back, and they used it in some internal presentations. The original map was created in Processing, and output to movie files were made to work in a Keynote presentation. However, in order to make the map interactive in the browser — we wanted the state blocks to move up and down depending on the percent difference of an individual states’ NikeFuel at a selected weather, and enacted a state outline and caption to appear over the individual states upon mouse over or tap — we had to recode from scratch.

SVG map

In deciding whether to use canvas or SVG to render the map, we figured that SVG would give us complex shape detection without additional code. But in order to create the 3d effect, we still had to build an SVG parser in JavaScript so that we could take apart the state shapes and create the sides. We got the concept to work, but it was far too slow: every frame rebuilt over 6,000 distinct shapes. The way to cut that count was to simplify the shapes, so we built a customized SVG shape simplifier and got the count down to around twelve hundred shapes. This seemed to be a good balance between speed and detail. After a bit of tweaking to get the states to stack properly, the rest was just a whole mess of JavaScript to get it to behave.

We kept all the additional UI elements as minimal as possible so that the map could be the hero element on the screen. It took many iterations before we were able to balance the amount of interactive elements and the amount of text on the screen. Images below show some of the more awkward attempts.

When we could see the clear divide between the northern and southern states at colder temperature ranges, we knew the 3D representation was an effective way to display regional stories and patterns. The individual states rising and falling based on average NikeFuel creates a sense individual state pride (or pity), as well as regional competition to see which states outperform one another under different weather conditions.

Bar chart representing temperature ranges between 50–60º
Bar chart representing temperature ranges between 50–60º

Our initial analysis looked at all the different temperature ranges as simple bar charts but, it would have been extremely inefficient to represent the data in this manner (never mind boring), because they would have essentially depicted lists of state rankings at every temperature range. The map distinguishes state and regional movement trends at every weather scenario, highlighting performance both within and between each region of the country.

3D map representing temperature ranges between 50–60º
3D map representing temperature ranges between 50–60º

The personal data section also had its share of design iterations. For those of you with Nike+ accounts, you can log in to the section of the site “What weather moves you?” to see personalized information about how the weather impacts your daily intensity levels and frequency of workouts. We initially intended the personal section to be quite simple; just showing your personal best for activity and the percent difference based on your daily average NikeFuel. It seemed a bit too basic and was greatly overshadowed by the sophistication of the interactive map. We then over corrected a bit and started to look at an individuals’ entire year of data compared to the temperature, intensity of activity and individual state comparison in one view. This seemed like a dashboard of too much information that most consumers did not want to see all at once.

Personal data section (design iteration 001)
Personal data section (design iteration 001)
Personal data section (design iteration 002)
Personal data section (design iteration 002)

We were able to balance the robustness and simplicity of the map and apply it to the personal data by breaking it out into three screens (Movement, Temperature, and Best Day). This display helps people navigate and interact with each sub story, enabling the individual to see themselves in the data.

Personal data section (final design) Movement
Personal data section (final design) Movement
Personal data section (final design) Temperature
Personal data section (final design) Temperature
Personal data section (final design) Best day
Personal data section (final design) Best day

Finally, lets talk about responsiveness and context

Balancing an interactive data visualization that works on a desktop computer and scales down to the size of your phone is no easy endeavor. We fought with this task for a while until we realized we were fighting the wrong battle. Trying to make this site work on a small screen would never work, even after setting all sorts of breakpoints in the CSS and limiting the functionality and content. It’s not the right contextual experience for a small screen like your iPhone or fabulous phablet.

We thought about some key messages we wanted to convey to our audience while on the go. What’s the weather like in my area and how does it impact activity? How does weather impact activity across the country? How do these things compare? We developed a discrete site that uses your current location to identify the weather and statewide NikeFuel activity. You can then see the overall map of the U.S. to see how trends appear while comparing them to your current local weather conditions.

To continue the conversation about the weather check out NikeFuel Weather Activity.