Thursday, February 07, 2008

Data Visualization: Honest, Powerful Interpretative Design

I have seen the future of interpretative design, and that future is data visualization. I'm talking tables of figures. Huge swaths of words. Volumes of dry-as-dirt content.

On the face of it, data visualization is just about the least sexy thing imaginable. Entertain the idea of an exhibit based on Gantt charts and spreadsheets, and your head might just explode. And yet, over the last few years, as the web has unlocked piles of information, a quiet group of math-minded designers are figuring out how to interpret the vast impersonalness of data and make it both beautiful and meaningful.

I met one of these data artists last year while visiting a friend/journalist at the New York Times. His name is Mark Hansen, a UCLA statistician, and he was working on the finishing touches of the installation of Moveable Type in the lobby of the new Times building (shown above).

Moveable Type, like its predecessor, Listening Post (now touring international art and science museums), is an exercise in harnessing and repackaging data as art. And while the installation is digital (560 fluorescent displays backed by individual tiny speakers), the effect, when multiplied across a large space, is intensely physical. Talking to Mark, I was amazed by he and his partner Ben Rubin's dogmatic insistence on capturing the energy and life inside the millions of words cranked out by reporters in the building, echoing the energy and life of the outside world about which they write.

Sure, a lot of artists can express those kinds of intentions. But in Hansen and Rubin's case, it actually gets across. Moveable Type is one of the most accessible pieces of art I've ever experienced, and I think its honesty and power come from the fact that it is a distillation, not an interpretation, of the New
York Times. It doesn't launch from a news story and then go gestural. Every element, from the obituaries that blow across the screens like wind through grass to the wedding announcements, which tick by interchangeable as train schedules, tries to get at the core meaning of the data involved. And that leads ultimately to a presentation of content which is both evocative and deeply connected to the core information.

And herein lies the power of data visualization: no matter how artistic it gets, it remains truthful to the core content. It has to, because that content is the basis for the work itself. Whether you are modeling the brain, tracking the incidence of emotional statements on the Web, or conveying a chair as a sound wave, the resultant art is a deep reflection, not just an interpretation, of the data involved.

And thus data visualization tackles one of the core problems with interpretative design. Traditionally, there's a battle between veracity and interpretation--the more you interpret, the more the purists cry foul. There's an ongoing debate in the museum field about whether interpretation enhances or distorts visitors' understanding of content, and what kind of interpretation distorts in what ways.

We have well-developed design skills for interpreting and presenting stories and objects. But when it comes to presenting data, most museum folks believe that over-interpretation is necessary. It would be deadly dull, they reason, to show the meat of what scientists produce--endless tables of numbers--so we have to find another way to interpret and translate their work. We throw a rug over it and call it a story. But data visualizers, instead of looking for another way beyond or outside the data, pore into the numbers and try to create an interpretation centered, and endlessly circling back on, the data itself.

This is not to say there aren't bad incidences of data visualization, pieces that distort or confound data in ways that may be particularly harmful (since they retain the semblance of being based on hard numbers). And there are plenty of gestural data pieces that go a little too far off the interpretative end to be meaningful (origami representation of web use, anyone?). But when it works, the result is deeply intoxicating, rich with content, and the meaning seems to emerge artistically from the data itself. You feel that you are closer to the true experience of conducting science, the tedious rigor of collection matched with the rush of putting it all together. Data visualization helps us be intelligent interpreters on our own, instead of asking someone else to design an interpreted experience for us.

And that makes you feel like a tiny god, to stand in a lobby and feel that you have the pulse of a newspaper, a corporation, a world, in your grasp.

6 comments, add yours!:

Christopher said...

I had noticed that you had a link to Information Aesthetics in your side bar -- one of my personal favorites -- I'd also suggest interactivearchitecture.org.

All information is interpreted, no matter how it is displayed. I enjoy very much the work of Edward Tufte in this regard. But although he would suggest that perhaps data can be made more accessible and usable, it's never entirely neutral.

Data that is "raw" is foreboding and thus presents the idea that it is not be understood. And thus creates a moat around itself of inaccessibility. Inaccessibility is not neutral. It's defiantly classist.

As Tufte has shown in his research that the best information design throughout history is about targeting the audience and making the information clear to the reader. The worst examples do neither or misrepresent information (often with horrible consequences).

I suppose that the main issue with just making something "pretty" is does that create a situation where meaning is obscured. Is it surface over presentation. Does the viewer walk away with anything other than, "that's cool what they did with the statistics about the national debt/deaths from pediatric AIDs/incidence of breast cancer" but is unable to be any closer to understanding.

Paul Orselli said...

Hi Nina,

I'm wondering if you could expand on one of your final statements:

"Data visualization helps us be intelligent interpreters on our own, instead of asking someone else to design an interpreted experience for us."

The reason I ask, is that many data visualization art pieces, albeit elegant, seem to be inherently "push" technologies. That is to say, they parse selected bits of data for the viewer.


So how does finding patterns in streams of algorithmically-derived data move beyond the enjoyable exercise of discovering "shapes" in the clouds?

Personally, I love these pieces, but I don't think I'd call them participatory or 2.0.

On a slight tangent, check out the website Social Explorer "http://www.socialexplorer.com/pub/home/home.aspx"

Nina Simon said...

Great comments, folks. I think they both relate to the same question: is data visualization just another way to package information for surface-level consumption?

In one way, the answer is yes. Seeing the data itself doesn't fundamentally make the related content more meaningful. But when it's done well, I find myself browsing more deeply through data visualizations than I do through standard push content. There's often more there to look at, and there's a feeling of uncovering layers of information and meaning, that you can peel back the interpretative overlay and really get a feeling for the guts. So in a tangible way, it's my uninformed guess that good data design generates longer dwell time with a content experience, and more exploratory behavior. And maybe you are exploring the shapes of the clouds, which I also think is pretty good and something we don't spend enough time doing. In some ways, these visualizations are more sexy versions of cloud-watching that make you more likely to engage in that kind of wandering exploration. To me, it's an under-utilized tool in the design kit, something to be considered.

And you're probably right about this not being 2.0, Paul. Although it often stems from collective data (as in We Feel Fine), the result is a push experience. Sometimes I let myself sneak something in that's a bit off-topic. After all, one cannot live on 2.0 alone :)

Eric said...

hello, all:

This is a topic that I have been thinking about a lot from several different angles. Several years ago, I had a chance to work with JPL and met Eric deJong, who introduced me to the complexitites of turning bits into pictures, particularly when the bits were gathered from the surface of Venus. Felice Frankel is a photographer who works along side scientists in their labs to make their work more visible. For two years, she ran a conference called Image and Meaning that brought together visualization people from all different fields. Here is the web site from the last conference http://www.imageandmeaning.org/. Felice is very provocative and thought-provoking about what is involved in creating images from data.

More recently, we are working with Katy Borner, an information scientist who did the exhibition called Places and Spaces: Mapping Science (can't do without those colon-ized titles). http://www.scimaps.org/ She works with a group of scientists who map relationships between sciences, just as google maps relationships between people who search on the word "cruise" and people who might like peanut butter. The exhibition is ambitious

Rubin and Hansens work is a very elegant construction that raises some interesting questions. Hansen, as I recall, is a statistician who used to work for Bell Labs, and Rubin is a media artist. What are the algorithms that Hansen uses to select the words that show up in the installation? Does it matter to the audience? Without reading the label does the audience care or have an affective response to the idea that these are somehow "real words" from some "real source?" And is that source less real for having been extracted based upon a choice that Hansen made?

As the information deluge washes over us and as data is increasingly available only in bits, visualization and mapping are fundamental to how scientists work. And it will be very useful for us to help people understand this. It is a really fruitful area for exploration, and Museum 2.0 is on the case, again! Good job, Nina.

electronicmuseum said...

I hope someone checked the copyright issues with the blogging software vendor also called MoveableType... :-)

Matthew said...

I do hope we see more work or more encouragement of work that makes the audience ask "what is it?", rather than "why is it?". Work that so purely finds strength in it's own physical existence (rather than an artist's interpretation or story) does have a different connection with the audience - there is a direct interest to the piece that isn't clouded in some unnecessary need to justify it's existence with all sorts of deep and meaningful excuses and/or super-human functionality. That's my opinion based on watching people approach my sound/chair at exhibitions. I'm writing my Royal College of Art dissertation on the matter in hope that I can convince my tutors to stop asking me to attach stories to my work.

Good article!

M Plummer-Fernandez