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 (Amy Balkin)
Rewiring the Spy: “Mapping” terrorism in the news. Haunting. (Lisa Strausfeld and James Nick Sears)
Google Earth Mashup: Sea level rise flood maps. (Alex Tingle)
Emergent Surfaces: Motorized sculpture responds to its environment. Gorgeous. (Hoberman Associates)
I Want You to Want Me! Snippets from dating sites. Cute! (Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar)
Text Arc: “Mapping” Alice in Wonderland. Egg-shaped whimsy. (W. Bradford Paley)
Sonumbra: A tree of light that responds to the people in the room. Eerily soothing. (Rachel Wingfield & Mathias Gmachl)
“Mapping” the Internet Oddly 80s! (Bill Cheswick)