Posts Tagged ‘Information Design’

Numbers are only as useful as the questions you ask of them

Friday, May 9th, 2008

Errol Morris recently made a point about filmmaking that expresses precisely how I feel about interpreting data:

“There is no mode of expression, no technique of production that will instantly produce truth or falsehood.”

Data, like film or photography is a representation of “the real world”. We study it in the hopes of finding enlightenment and understanding. However, there is no “technique of [data representation] that will instantly produce truth or falsehood.” If someone is disillusioned with data it is often because they expect too much from it. Data can’t “tell us” anything. It can only take something that is hard to grasp and offer up otherwise submerged surface area for examination, inquiry and analysis.

An important part of analyzing data is doubt and questioning, yet most data reported by the mainstream media is doubt-resistant. Some magic number is reported to the public with no real data to pick apart and study. Where do these magic numbers come from?

I wrote a while back about Yale Professor Don Green saying casually that he never believes tidy data. Beware of dumbed down data! When presented with data that conveniently boils down to “one number” that can explain it all, raise an eyebrow and dig deeper.

Responsible reporting of new data findings should probe and challenge the data. Where did the data come from? How reliable are these sources? What data is missing? How might what’s missing change the results? (This is the hardest to pull-off because it requires us to imagine what we don’t know.) How is the way the data is presented inadvertently influencing how it will be interpreted? What assumptions will each person bring to their interpretation of this data? Are they valid? Who’s in a position to make that judgment? Without at least asking these questions, eye-catching “magic number” headlines are a disservice to the public, designed to catch eyeballs with false clarity rather than expose the confusing uncertainty of reality.

More often than not, analyzing one data set simply propels you to collect and question more data. Now that I have this data, what other data do I need? Now that I have answers to these questions, what other questions do I now know I need to ask?

This is not to say that data never yields answers. Generally speaking, however, every hard-won answer simply opens the door to 5 more questions you couldn’t have imagined at the outset.

Follow-up photos from MoMA’s “Design and the Elastic Mind”

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

I forgot my camera the first time I saw this exhibit on a Friday night, with free admission courtesy of Target, and so the photos below don’t capture the enthusiasm and almost sweaty energy of the intense crowd that filled every corner of the exhibition space that night. These photos are from early Wednesday morning last week, with a considerably thinner crowd, and although they’re not fantastic photos, I hope they show some of the curiosity and engagement I saw on people’s faces.

Looking at “Flight Patterns” by Aaron Koblin

An example of Mimi’s point: data of flight patterns imposed on a map, immediately conveying information as well as something nice to look at.

“I Want You to Want Me” by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar

A sweet and funny work playing with data from online dating sites, certainly a database of societal concerns, if not as serious as the Architecture and Justice piece on prison populations.

“Shadow Monsters” by Philip Worthington, probably the most popular piece

And last, something completely unrelated to data, but probably best at conveying how fun this whole exhibition is.

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

Friday, March 28th, 2008

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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