Posts by eva
Katy went to Hollywood

Last week, Katy suddenly told us she was going to Hollywood. She picked up a glamorous looking suitcase, and was gone.

It turned out that The Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF) had invited her to speak at their symposium. But she did write home and explained:

WESTAF holds an annual gathering of researchers whose work relates to arts and culture policy — everything from arts administrators, economists, sociologists, geographers, anthropologists, and designers — each in their own way trying to figure out what value the arts have to contribute to big picture goals like vibrant cities, well educated kids, and renewed economic prosperity for regions where industry has moved elsewhere. The focus this year was the overwhelming amount of data these fields now have access to, and how that data might be translated into better policies for arts and culture initiatives.

Representatives from design firms like Fathom and Stamen shared ideas about what’s possible, and how storytelling and narrative are key starting points for making research and data more accessible to a larger audience.

I showed Stats of the Union, in particular, because it started life as a public data set. Because we did two distinct versions using the same data, its a great way to show how framing changes things when all else is held equal. First as a more basic redesign of the content. And then second with an eye towards telling a compelling story to a larger audience.

Katy claimed she had conference most of her stay in LA, but she did manage to send home a photo diary:

The symposium took place on the top floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Prior to this trip, the pavilion was only known to me as the place where my mom, as a high school student, saw Angela Lansbury in a production of Mame. It was a beautifully maintained late 60s arts complex that had a great view of the plaza below.

This was the closest I got to the Hollywood sign. The tiny, white horizontal thing in the middle of that back mountaintop is it.

After talks, I spent a lot of time decompressing in the gardens surrounding Walt Disney Concert Hall (designed by Frank Gehry).

This was the inner table at the symposium. Anyone who sat here had to speak.


Anyone who writes about the American novelist Joyce Carol Oates mentions her productivity. Since 1963, when she at age 25 came out with her first collection of short stories, Oates has published over 120 books. Stephen King, also known for his productivity, has a mere 75 to his name.

“Prolific” may now be as tied to Joyce Carol Oates as “abominable” is to the Himalayan snowman. But more interesting than the productivity is of course the imagination that enables it: how Oates renders a fictional Jeffrey Dahmer or Marilyn Monroe with such perfect empathetic pitch that everything about them seems lifelike. Still, we thought it would be interesting to look at this “prolific” and show an overview of Joyce Carol Oates’s extraordinary creative output.

We gathered the covers of all her novels, novellas, short-story collections, young adult fiction, children’s books, memoirs, essay collections, plays, and novels under two different pseudonyms. In our process of figuring out how best to look at them, Chris built several viewers that showed cover art and genres on a timeline that spans 1963 to 2012.

We found that a static image, showing all the data at once, told the most interesting story (and also worked best as a “poster of aspiration and stress” for wannabe novelists…). What we most wanted to see was simply: “What does it look like to have written 120 books?”

Mark gives a talk

Last week, Katy and I went to see Mark talk about Interaction in Data Visualization at Boston CHI.

Since talks can be one thing when you hear them and quite another when you try recap them later — sans speaker charisma, raised stage and elegant delivery — I often find it interesting to return to my notes a while after the talk. See if the genie is still in the bottle. What stays with you over a bit of time, is often more valuable than your immediate impression. (Stealing the slides also helped.)

Mark’s point on interactivity in data visualization states that a display needs to be interactive if a changed view lets the audience focus on the analyses rather than the data.

It’s a principle often ignored. Even when a designer exports the data into visual expressions, the viewer still often has to spend energy locating comparable data sets.

While in the example below, by making data from the Community Health Status Indicators (CHSI) report available in a single-screen interface for the iPad app Stats of the Union, the viewer can change perspectives while preserving the context.

Mark also gave the “why this, why now” of data visualization.

Visualization has long been simply a practical method for communicating information. The effort to tease meaning out of data sets and show it visually — be it uncharted coasts, human behavior, or balls of light traversing the night sky, is not new.

But this is why companies and the public pay more attention to the field:

Mark detailed the process of how analysts, developers, and designers establish relationships between numbers, images, and text in order to fit them into an interactive app that preserves meaning and is simple to use.

A week after hearing his perspective, one thought in particular had stayed with me:

Insights are expensive.

Once the work is done, an insight may appear simple. But the effort that someone went through to acquire them was far from.

An expensive insight, once truly understood, can often be extremely concentrated. It’s the sub-clause that sums up a writer’s understanding of how Russian literature affected the Western voice — precisely what the story needs — versus the cheap effort of filling two paragraphs with notes on a late morning. An expensive insight may add just a small part: a slice of a three million year old bone extracted from the Ethiopian desert, cleaned, analyzed, and fitted into context — Lucy — by a patient archeologist.

Once simplicity is reached, a design looks obvious, even banal. Of course it’s done this way! It’s almost annoying. But with the aim on clarity, one should never show off the effort. Showing off effort tends to inspire design that may look intriguing but is about as instructive as its real life equivalent:


Mustache for meals

On February first, Chris appeared at work with a clean face. He told us that this was the beginning of a charity stunt. Chris had joined a group of men who would shave, then grow, then partially shave again to raise funds for Community Servings, an organization that make meals for Boston’s ill.

Besides promising to entertain us with his looks on February 29, Chris built an interactive Wooly Willy-app so that other people could help design a great mustache.

Frank Zappa, Burt Reynolds or Frida Kahlo. Plenty of styles to choose from. All of them giving Wooly Chris a new inner life.

In the same way as the full beard allows the secretly 40-something hipster to sport the lifestyle of a 22-year old without anybody asking questions, the mustache gives its bearer a quick key to his personality. You can guess from afar that the guy in a Dali is eccentric; the walrus is probably sweeter than he looks, and the man in the Fu Manchu is not the good guy.

All this digital growing and shaving raised a deeper question: why do men grow mustaches outside of charity?

Research shows that facial hair makes a man look more mature,

says Nancy Etcoff, Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School and author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, when we asked her.

But it also changes the way we perceive facial features and configurations. It can hide the shape of the mouth, or change the perception of the distance between nose and mouth. Beards can exaggerate size of jaws, mutton chops can make a face seem slimmer. And all can hide complexion problems.

So hiding and enhancing?

Yes. Men’s facial hair is like women’s cosmetic.

Two interactive installations for GE

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been building two interactive installation pieces for the lobby of GE’s headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut. The pieces are part of the GE Works campaign, which describes and organizes the company’s work with four verbs: Powering, Curing, Building, and Moving. Our job was to show how data can illustrate these first two activities.

To share the installations online, we created a pair of videos (seen above and below) that capture how the interactive pieces work and what they depict.

For the “Powering” piece, we worked with data about the location and power output from 713 GE gas turbines during fifteen days.

For “Curing,” we tracked 125,530 CT and MR scans conducted using GE equipment during a 24-hour period. Aesthetically, the pieces had to work from a distance in the physical space of a lobby, which called for some different design decisions than an online tool would require. Still, we wanted it to be clear that the pieces are informed by real data, generated by machines at work in the real world. Real data has structure, and this structure informs the design.

The difference between generative art and a visualization based on real data is that with the latter, the viewer can visually decode the piece. Order, shape, size, direction, and color all have meaning. The dots originating from the globe in the “Curing” piece, for instance, represent the locations where the scans took place.

In the “Powering” data set, we discovered that turbines located in the same area work together for efficiency and sustainability. Globally, there’s no intentional, overarching structure to how the turbines fire up. Yet patterns emerge when turbines sharing time zones turn on and off at the same time. You can see these correlations in the final piece: the illuminated lines rolling towards the center at the same time indicate turbines turning on in unison. This wouldn’t happen with artificially generated data.

We chose each design element to best highlight what the data represented. The designs either evoke thoughts of the actual events and actions that the data signifies (turbines turning on, electricity being generated) or show a story of time and scale that is otherwise difficult to grasp (what do 135,000 scans really look like? What do they look like when spread across five continents?).

The designs also allow for different perspectives in a single interface. The globe in “Curing” shows the geo-location of the scans; simultaneously the timelines indicate the number of scans occurring each minute. The wheel in “Powering” shows the correlation of turbines turning on at the same time that it shows each turbine’s location and power output. This ensures that no data point is presented without context that lets an audience put it in perspective.

Even if these visualizations are small stories, just short glimpses into a larger story of activity across the world, they still reward the audience for taking an interest and a closer look. They make accessible actual numbers and output that would otherwise be buried in a spreadsheet.

The pieces are now being displayed on a large touch screen wall in the GE lobby. They were also on display during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos.

We turned to our friends for the soundtracks: for Powering, Gloobic produced From there to, and Oslo electric by Eric Gunther is the backdrop for Curing.

Founded in 2010 by Ben Fry, Fathom Information Design works with clients to understand complex data through interactive tools and software for mobile devices, the web, and large format installations. Out of its studio in Boston, Fathom partners with Fortune 500s and non-profit organizations across sectors, including health care, education, financial services, media, technology, and consumer products.

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