Visualizing Sandy: An Interview with Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg

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Wind Map by Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg
 
All the way in blissfully sunny Los Angeles during the throes of Hurricane Sandy, I watched with growing anxiety as friends and family rode out the storm. I found myself unsatisfied by personal accounts of empty supermarket shelves and mass media coverage of FEMA efforts and felt I needed better awareness of what was happening in empirical, but also meaningful terms. As it turns out, I wasn't alone — cue the Wind Project, from artists Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg. Wattenberg, trained as a mathematician, is also known for his work on number of classic digital art projects like the Shape of Song, The Apartment, and Whitney Artport's Idea Line, as well as Rhizome's StarryNight. Collaborating with Viégas since 2003, they have served as principles at the IBM Visual Communication Lab, where they initiated the "Many Eyes" project, a user-generated forum for uploading data and creating visualizations through conversation and collaboration, in the hopes of fostering a more social and democratic style of data analysis. Other past projects span from visualizations of Google Image discrepancies of fine art masterpieces to chat histories to baby names. Viégas and Wattenberg currently work with Google's "Big Picture" Data Group in Cambridge, MA and maintain their own practice as Flowing Media, Inc. 
 
Their latest project is "a living portrait of the wind currents over the United States" using data pulled hourly from the National Digital Forecast Database. The Wind Project site saw a strong spike in visitors in the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy, as dumbfounded viewers watched the complex choreography of curling, comet-like wind lines circling the eastern seaboard. Though I'm not sure it did much to calm my nerves, the image from landfall — October 29th, 2012 — has become an instant visualization classic. I recently spoke with Viégas and Wattenberg over email about the project and its impact on our experience of Sandy:
 
Were you surprised by the reaction to the wind map in the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy?  What do you think it is about that specific visualization that really captured people's awe but also sense of dread?
 
We were impressed, but not totally surprised: Hurricane Isaac was kind of a warm-up storm, and we saw a lot of interest then. One big difference was this time we were in the path of the storm. In fact, it's a minor miracle that our data center (that is, one old computer) in Massachusetts had power the entire time...

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Data Space

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Rather than hewing to a tight editorial voice, New York-based quarterly CLOG selects a singular subject for each issue and promises to unpack it “from multiple viewpoints and through a variety of means.” The most recent issue takes on the architectural typologies of the modern data center – both studying the physical reality of information infrastructure and imagining new figurations that might better reflect our digital age.

An overwhelming proliferation of short essays—44 features total in the slim, 127 page volume, each only a few pages in length—function as historical background, case study, research exercise, conjecture and pure architectural folly.  All, however, are predicated on the existence of a unique spatio-temporal relationship in our contemporary society between architectural form and digital technology.  As quoted early in the issue, Mies van der Rohe claimed in a 1950 address to IIT “wherever technology reaches its real fulfillment, it transcends into architecture…it is the crystallization of its inner structure, the slow unfolding of its final form.”

Positivism aside, this blurring between what constitutes a “building” versus what you might, depending on your level of technological sophistication, call “infrastructure,” “wires,” or just “ugly stuff,” has a long dialogical history. Modernism’s persistent obsession with the factory and Reyner Banham’s “A Home is Not a House” essay in Art in America (April 1965) both display a certain shared affection among architects for the utilitarian – are the windowless concrete monoliths that house our Instagram photos and most intimate Google queries a holdover from that industrio-fetishistic era?  Or do they simply have no need to perform for us any longer?  Luiz André Barroso and Urs Hölzle pull contemporary Warehouse Scale Computers (WSCs) into that same discourse, noting that “perhaps most importantly, WSC designers – software, hardware, mechanical, electrical, environmental, thermal and civil engineers – don’t ...

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Dresses Made from Tweets and Tropical Fish Musical Scales at London Data&Art Hackathon

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image via Paul Clarke 

Recently, Digital Sizzle staged a data and art hackathon at Mozilla HQ in London.There were no rules – the only expectation was to share ideas and skills. The hackathon began with a handful of participants pitching ideas. The weekend’s aim was to make art but, its context also showcased developers as creative practitioners who are just as engaged in the process of making as artists are. In the end, two themes of opposing approaches defined the weekend: generating data vs. using data sets and material outcomes vs. screen based outcomes. Tonight a selection of the projects will be shown at Whitechapel Gallery...

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Short Documentary on Internet Infrastructure

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Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors is a short documentary explaining internet infrastructure, focusing on the art deco building 60 Hudson Street in Tribeca, which is now one of the most concentrated carrier hotels in the world. The internet has an "ironically very limited geography in terms of big strategic concentrations," explains Stephen Graham, professor of cities and society, Newcastle University, in the short film. "The big affluent high tech information rich regions" is where the infrastructure is densely located. And 60 Hudson Street was especially ideal as a hub, given that the building was already designed to accomidate cables as it was first fitted for pneumatics tubes, then telegraph cables and telephone lines. 

In an interview with The Atlantic's Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, director Ben Mendelsohn explains, "The issue of how this infrastructure is hidden fascinates me. Andrew Blum has a book coming out in May about physical Internet infrastructure, which I'm very excited for. He was giving a lecture and handing out postcards of "data monuments" in New York City, and I asked him: if these are monuments, what do they reveal about the culture that built them? Their message is really one of ambivalence. Service providers need to let potential clients know where they are, but they generally decline to make their presence widely known beyond that marketing purpose. Andrew did say that he envisions "brewery tour" style visits or class field trips to Internet buildings in the future, and I think that would be great, but the industry is not there yet."

 

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Essay by Alexander R. Galloway on Nils Aall Barricelli in Cabinet

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Barricelli experiment recreated with Processing by Galloway. Barricelli’s visualization technique has been altered—color has been added to show the gene groups more clearly, and the vertical axis has been compressed to increase the amount of evolutionary time that is visible. Each swatch of textured color within the image indicates a different organism. Borders between color fields mean that an organism has perished, been born, mutated, or otherwise evolved into something new

The latest issue of Cabinet inclues an essay by Alexander R. Galloway on mathematician Nils Aall Barricelli, who created artificial evolution experiments in the 50s, with a striking visualization technique:

How did it work? Barricelli established a “universe” consisting of a horizontal row of 512 genes. Genes were represented using integers from negative 18 to positive 18. According to “norms” he established governing mutation and reproduction, each number reproduced into the row below it. in this way, the norms translated rows of “parent” genes into subsequent rows of “child” genes, which in turn were reproduced again using the same norms into subsequent generations over and over. if and when gene-numbers reappeared in a sustained group, Barricelli would designate each group an “organism.” proceeding in lines from top to bottom, Barricelli’s algorithm produced a rectangular image consisting of a grid of genes appearing as individual pixels. When finished, the image yielded a snapshot of evolutionary time, with the oldest generations of organisms at the top and the youngest at the bottom. the output of Barricelli’s experiments was highly visual. he was essentially drawing directly in binary numbers, converting 1s and 0s into pixels in either on or off positions. Because he represented each gene as pixels, organisms were identified visually based on how the pixel patterns self-organized into texture fields, which were identified as shapes or ...

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5 Million Dollars 1 Terabyte (2011) - Manuel Palou

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5 Million Dollars 1 Terrabyte (2011) is a sculpture consisting of a 1 TB Black External Hard Drive containing $5,000,000 worth of illegally downloaded files. A full list of the files with clickable download links can be found here.

 

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Info Mining: A Look at George Tzanetakis' Innovations in Music Classification

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Printed scores were once necessary for music listening.  Until the 20th century, each musician playing a symphony would need his own notated sheet music in order to play a piece for every performance.  Today, the bulk of music listening happens through recordings.  Musicians only need to play a song correctly once in order for anybody to hear it anytime, anywhere.

But with the streamlined dissemination of digital music on the Internet, today’s listeners need guidelines for how to consume music just as badly as musicians once needed scores to produce new music.  There is simply too much recorded music for any one person to keep track.  Accordingly, “music discovery services”, which guide listeners through huge libraries of music, are beginning to emerge as a genuine growth industry.

Pandora, a leading music discovery service, famously began its Music Genome Project about a decade ago, a music classification method that numerically rates songs according to a long list of criteria and sorts songs by these “genetic” similarities.  Pandora’s website generates playlist suggestions based on a minimal amount of input from listeners.  Ideally, Pandora automatically can create personally tailored playlists that a listener didn’t have the knowledge or time to create.

Shortly before the Music Genome Project commenced, George Tzanetakis made Marsyas, an open-source toolkit for automatically classifying songs and entire libraries of music, among other applications.  Pandora and Marsyas had similar aims - to intelligently sort music libraries to give listeners a way to find new artists and retrieve other qualitative information about music.  Working at Princeton as a grad student with professor Perry Cook, who wanted to find a way of automatically sorting radio stations, Tzanetakis developed various library-browsing visualizations within Marsyas, including Genre Meter, which can respond live to sound sources and classify them (video demo.)

Pandora has taken off as a large-scale commercial venture, with more competitors like Spotify and Slacker in its wake.  Tzanetakis’ Marsyas has remained known mostly only by academics and computer scientists.  Regardless, Tzanetakis’ work addresses issues of music classification in a more radical and even prophetic way than Pandora: all of Marsyas’ “genes” are completely determined by computer automation.  Tzanetakis’ contributions to the field of Music Information Retrieval (MIR, for short) have helped to push computers toward increasingly delicate interpretations of one of man’s most elusive forms of expression.  Marsyas is available for free download and even has a free user manual.

Though songs in the Pandora database are weighed and sorted by algorithms, a board of experts determines the value of each “gene”.  Recently, a New York Times reporter sat in with a group of Pandora’s experts listening to songs and then opining about how high a song scored in criteria like “emotional delivery”, “exoticism” and “riskiness”; as well as more concrete judgements on tempo, instrumentation and harmony.

By contrast, George Tzanetakis’ approach to music classification is completely automated.  It needs no panel of experts or crowdsourced participants to complete an intelligently made, intuitively browsable library of music.  It works based entirely on the audio signals themselves.  Given merely a library of digital song files, George Tzanetakis’ automated classification techniques algorithmically organize songs according to a variety of criteria and present fun interactive ways to browse and compare music.

 

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Storytelling: An Interview With Nicholas Felton

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Nicholas Felton spends much of his time thinking about data, charts and our daily routines. He is the author of several Personal Annual Reports that collate countless measurements into a rich assortment of graphs and maps reflecting the year’s activities. He is the co-founder of Daytum.com, a site for counting and communicating daily data, and a member of the product design team at Facebook. His work has been profiled in publications including the Wall Street Journal, Wired and Creative Review.

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The Data Dimension at FutureEverything 2011

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MIT SENSEable City Lab: Borderline


The Data Dimension at FutureEverything 2011 (Manchester, UK) features an eclectic mix of design and art projects which gesture towards a data-driven culture. The first microscope was designed by Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). The microscope, like the telescope, revealed entirely new worlds, at scales impossible for humans to perceive. Today, like their predecessor, scientists, artists, academics and amateurs, re-purpose, extend, and invent new technologies to observe and comprehend the things no one has seen or understood before. This not only reveals a previously unimagined realm, more than this it constructs a new reality, giving shape and life to a new dimension. The artworks featured in The Data Dimension are an example of the type of experiments taking place. They are spyglasses to study the microscopic, immaterial and infinitely complex. This is about illuminating a future, and creating a new perspective, on a world that is only beginning to emerge. The Data Dimension presents a selection of these Digital Microscopes; artworks that nurture new insights into the invisible infrastructures that make up our world. Here designers and artists visualise the invisible layer of complex data that surrounds our daily lives, making data come alive.

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Pure Data read as pure data (2010) - Nicolas Maigret

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The content of the Pure Data application is read as pure data into sound and pixels (rgb + extrude)

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