Posts by Rachel
Oscar {data} Party

Fathom is a team of diverse interests – and among our crew, there are several of us who are really into movies. During the weeks leading up to the 90th Academy Awards that aired this past Sunday, we looked through twenty years of data on Best Picture nominees, and have put together a collection of
some of the results.

Oscar data is interesting to work with because in some ways it’s highly organized and straightforward. These are the categories, these are the nominees, these are the winners. Here is what each film cost to produce, what its box office returns were, what its aggregate score is after being rated by thousands of people on IMDB. Yet if you watched the Oscars this weekend, you saw actors and cinematographers and writers and directors all attempt to articulate how profoundly these movies speak to the human condition. Each of these films are steeped in narrative – not only the plot of the film itself, but every part of the process where a spark of an idea was (over many years and with great labor) transformed into a feature film. Layers like these lend great depth to flat numbers.

I was particularly interested in production budgets – the range spans several hundred million dollars, but nearly all of the best picture winners from recent years have costed only around $20 million. The two outliers are Argo ($45 million) and Moonlight, which at $1.5 million, is the lowest production cost of any best picture winner in 90 years (taking inflation into account). 

Flowchart noting recurring themes among Best Picture nominees. Don’t worry, Tom Hanks will fix everything.

From the list of nominees, I started pulling films together by subject matter and found some interesting pairings. It seemed that certain types of films tended to run long. Certain wars feature more prominently than others, and movies about racism are frequently set within specific eras of the past, rather than present-day. The flowchart above maps some of these findings. It also turns out that the movie posters for Seabiscuit and War Horse share strikingly similar compositions.

Initial sketch and final motion version of visualization of film lengths 

It was also interesting to take a look at the top-grossing films of each year, and compare this set to the films that won Best Picture. The Return of the King is the only sequel in the last two decades to win best picture, whereas most of the top grossing films are many incarnations deep into their respective worlds. Captain America: Civil War is the 13th film set in that particular Marvel universe, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II are the eighth installments in their respective franchises. Audiences are clearly willing to turn out in larger numbers for something they’re familiar with, and the ticket sales of the Best Picture winners look pretty diminutive by comparison.

2018 Best Picture nominees, with the number of nominations orbiting a central ellipse that correlates in size with production costs.

This group of studies includes interactive sketches, motion studies, digital studies, and cut paper. With the end of the awards comes the end of the project – for now – but there are countless stories and methods of representation for the data. 

Weather Girls

Projects at Fathom are highly collaborative – so I enjoy the luxury of designing things far beyond my own technical limitations, because I am paired up with at least one other person with champion developer skills. We also have a few hybrids who are extremely qualified on both fronts – but my own background has been primarily in graphic design and illustration.

To help round out the knowledge of people whose experience in these two areas tends to be a bit lopsided, we’ve held python classes, a typography lecture, and other small workshops to go over specific skills. As a more formal education effort, Ben Fry has also been teaching an information design class at MIT, now in its third semester and an official part of the D-minor curriculum. 

My fellow designer (and co-alum from Wash-UPaul and I took advantage of a small break between client projects to follow along with a few of the MIT assignments. It was a great opportunity to practice our technical skills and code everything ourselves from the ground up, using the p5.js version of Processing. The first project was to design and build custom apps that would pull weather data from the Dark Sky API. Before diving into any API data, I decided to start with some really basic weather sketches just using Processing. I began with a simple bar graph charting ten years of Boston snowfall totals. (For anyone who missed the record-shattering winter of 2015, here’s a photo of a nearly three-story snow pile near Back Bay for reference).

I then built a second sketch that translated the accumulation totals into falling snow, with heavier years translating into larger, increasingly opaque snowflakes. Users could click through all ten years to get a sense of how intense the winter was. The severity of the 110-inch record is reflected nicely in the Processing sketch.

After doing a few smaller studies, I felt ready to attempt working with the weather API. Dark Sky (and many other weather APIs) offer current data on a huge range of specific weather variables. Using a location’s geocoordinates, you can easily track several dozen weather stats such as humidity, visibility, windspeed, type and intensity of precipitation, time of sunrise and sunset – and of course, the moon phase. I tried sketching a simple anemometer (the instrument that looks sort of like a weathervane, except that it measures windspeed rather than direction). The rate of rotation in the sketch is based on current windspeed and plugging in coordinates for different cities. Now that I had one metric working, I was ready to build out more features. I had recently created a small arsenal of vector people, so I borrowed one of the girls and built her a wardrobe of outfits that would be selected according to the current forecast.

I then grabbed the latitude and longitude of about two dozen locations scattered all across the globe, and set up a sketch where people could click through and see not only the weather in these places, but also what to wear. I also built rain and snow into the program – these initial sketches were started in the dead of winter, and during several snowstorms in Boston, it was fun to check in and see equally intense weather reflected in the p5.js sketch.

I added an additional layer for extreme cold – as the temperature drops below zero, a transparent white rectangle becomes slowly visible (Note how cold Oslo looks at a bone-chilling minus 23°F).

Once the clothing, ranges, and base list of cities were all set, Charlie and Olivia helped me clean up the code and set up Weather Girls as a website and Chrome extension. We are hoping to eventually add regional clothing features, including a complete set of all black outfits for New Yorkers and a Boston Terrier to accompany our local weather girl. Visit fathom.info/weathergirls for your local weather details as well as current weather conditions all across the globe!

Place Poetry

As anyone who has recently taken a road trip can attest, there are a lot of places in the United States with very distinctive names. Many of us at Fathom are fascinated by geography and the subtle oddities around us, so it seemed only natural we create Place Poetry. The playful mobile application enables people to arrange strangely named cities into poems, while simultaneously plotting the location and distance of their journey.


The United States has the third-largest area of any country (second only to Russia and China), and as pioneers expanded outwards, many places were in need of names upon settlement. Some places were named after preexisting locations in Europe and around the world. Others were named after powerful leaders – kings and presidents, local mayors, and often for the founders themselves. Many place names across the United States are vestiges of the native cultures stamped out or displaced during colonization. Towns were also named after nature, colors, weather, famous authors, and relative geography. Yet with all these common themes to pull from, some town founders went above and beyond.


When Ben created his original zipdecode project, he worked with a list of every uniquely-named town in the United States. This list contains 19,053 names, and provided the framework for Place Poetry. Many names on the list are highly inventive. Some names tempt fate (Waterproof, Smackover, Tornado) while others are seeped in vanity (Superior, Radiant, Cashtown). Some places reflect a founder’s disregard for the town (Blowing Rock, Hurdle Mills, Idiotville) and others leave you wondering how it was that such a name came into use (Bitely, Peculiar, Cut and Shoot, Oblong).

We narrowed down the original list of names into a select set of favorites, and sorted them into thematic categories. As these words are dragged from different bins into the composition space, the city’s location is plotted on a map. When the poem is complete, the author can see how many miles long his or her poem runs, and can also share it on social media or via email. Take a look, share a poem, and may your inner poet flippin zap peculiar aromas.

Note: Place Poetry is built for mobile devices, so please visit placepoetry.us on your phone or tablet!

Fathom goes to Salem

Last Thursday, we joined the studios of Design I/O and Sosolimited for a second annual gathering. All three teams met in Salem at the historic House of the Seven Gables, and spent the day sharing recent projects and discussing topics centered around the convergence of art and technology.


I worked on a visual identity for the conference, and wanted to develop something that combined technology and design with our location in Salem, Massachusetts. I started with sketches of bitmapped black cats, which evolved into a typeface and gifs of a cat that coughs out data hairballs and binary code. The event schedules were delivered in customized black envelopes, and the bitmapped cats made their way on to people’s name tags. This year the conference was entitled ‘DeSoFa,’ which combines the first two characters of the names of the studios.


It was really interesting to see what everyone has been working on. SOSO shared their Innovation Clock with us, which sparked an interesting discussion about sifting through the noise of Twitter for meaningful dialogue.


Design I/O spent an hour walking us through their interactive installation, Connected Worlds, which was recently unveiled at the New York Hall of Science. Design I/O and their collaborators created an entire digital ecosystem of an astonishing scale and scope.


I also really enjoyed hearing more about the Global Animal Trade interactive piece our team did for National Geographic. Though I had some familiarity with this project, it had wrapped shortly before I joined the office, and it was fun to hear the early stages of the project discussed in greater detail. A lot of the animal trade statistics were in completely different metrics, and there is no easy conversion between “centimeters of whale,” and “metric tons of caviar” – so a lot of work was needed at the outset to sift and organize the information. (Alex now has a fascinating reservoir of information on what strange and obscure animal parts are traded for even more strange and obscure reasons, which made for a very lively discussion at lunch.)


One of the highlights of the day was the Fast Ferry from Salem back to Boston, which was true to its name. It raced back to Long Wharf at such a fast clip that many of us were nearly blown overboard. Regardless, we clung to the rails of the prow to see the expansive views of the coastline and glowing summer sky.


With one more design gathering for the books, I’m looking forward to next year’s adventure!

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.

How can we help? hello@fathom.info.