Data Visualizations at MoMA’s “Design and the Elastic Mind”: Beautiful, clever and heartwarming; but what is it trying to tell me??

March 28th, 2008 by Mimi Yin

CDTF made a field trip to MoMA to see the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibit. I won’t try to summarize the exhibit here, but I think we each left more hopeful and inspired!

One lightbulb that went off (again) for me at the exhibit was just how hard it is to create truly “meaningful” visualizations of data.

I mean “meaningful” in the literal, not metaphorical sense of the word. Almost all of the exhibits were some combination of beautiful, clever, or heartwarming.

But the only ones that most effectively communicated information as opposed to just data were visualizations on maps and timelines: San Francisco taxi traffic patterns, flow of IP data across the globe, timeline of wikipedia edits.

Why? Maps have intrinsic meaning, they are a representation of the physical world we live in. (Calendars too.) As a semantic-rich canvas for data visualizations, maps become the lens through which we extract knowledge from the information presented to us.

Takeaway? When visualizing data, the backdrop is just as important as the actors in the show because by providing context, they provide us with a frame of reference to begin asking questions of the data: What is the significance of how the data points fall? Well, that depends on the semantic significance of the space they inhabit.

Now the question is, can we build a repertoire of semantic-rich canvases for visualizing data beyond maps and calendars?

Here are just a handful of the exhibits. They either fall into the category of: No explanation needed; or Cool, but what does it mean? (Pictures taken from the MoMA website.)

Which ones do you “get” right away?

Cabspotting (in San Francisco)Cabspotting in San Francisco (Amy Balkin)

Rewiring the SpyRewiring the Spy: “Mapping” terrorism in the news. Haunting. (Lisa Strausfeld and James Nick Sears)

Google Earth Mashup: New York Area Flood ZonesGoogle Earth Mashup: Sea level rise flood maps. (Alex Tingle)

Emergent SurfaceEmergent Surfaces: Motorized sculpture responds to its environment. Gorgeous. (Hoberman Associates)

I Want You to Want Me

I Want You to Want Me! Snippets from dating sites. Cute! (Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar)

Text Arc: Alice in WonderlandText Arc: “Mapping” Alice in Wonderland. Egg-shaped whimsy. (W. Bradford Paley)

SonumbraSonumbra: A tree of light that responds to the people in the room. Eerily soothing. (Rachel Wingfield & Mathias Gmachl)

Mapping the Internet“Mapping” the Internet Oddly 80s! (Bill Cheswick)

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2 Responses to “Data Visualizations at MoMA’s “Design and the Elastic Mind”: Beautiful, clever and heartwarming; but what is it trying to tell me??”

  1. Hadley says:

    I think it’s hard to create meaningful visualisations when you don’t have any stake in the data. In this exhibition the authors must struggle to take data that you didn’t know about it and make it both visually engaging and personally relevant. In most (non-art) situations you already have a big stake in the data – it’s YOUR data and it’s easy to create meaningful visualisations.

  2. Mimi Yin says:

    Good point Hadley.

    Here’s something else that requires having “a stake in the data”: Contributing data in the first place. If you don’t personally derive value from data that is being collected from you and about you, then why would you care about the accuracy and of the information you’re providing?


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