Fantastic TED talk from Chris Jordan back in February 2008. Chris creates beautiful images that convey scale in the millions. Examples include statistics like the number of plastic cups used in a day — four million — and here showing one million of them:
The talk is ten minutes, and well worth a look. I’m linking a sinfully small version here, but check out the higher resolution version on the TED site.
As much as I love looking at this work (and his earlier portraits, more can be found on his site), there’s also something peculiar about the beauty of the images perhaps neutering their original point. Does seeing the number of prison uniforms spur viewers to action, or does it give chin-rubbing intellectual fulfillment accompanied by a deep sigh of worldliness? I’d hate to think it’s the latter. Someone I asked about this had a different reaction, and cited a group that had actually begun to act based on what they saw in his work. I wish I had the reference, but if that’s the case (and I hope it is), there’s no argument.
Looking at it another way, next time you reach for a plastic cup, will Jordan’s image that will come to mind? Will you make a different decision, even some of the time?
I’ve also just purchased his “Running the Numbers” book, since these web images are an injustice to the work. And I have more chin scratching and sighing to do.
(Thanks to Ron Kurti for the heads up on the video.)
Finally got around to watching Dan Frankowski’s “You Are What You Say: Privacy Risks of Public Mentions” Google Tech Talk the other day. (I had the link set aside for two years. There’s a bit of a backlog.) In the talk, he takes an “anonymized” set of movie ratings and removes the anonymity by matching them to public mentions of movies in user profiles on the same site.
Interestingly, the ratings themselves weren’t as informative as the actual choice of movies to talk about. In the case of a site for movie buffs — ahem, film aficionados — I couldn’t help but think about participants in discussions using obscure film references as colored tail feathers as they try to out-strut one another. Of course this has significant impact on such a method, making the point that individual uniqueness is only a signature for identification: what makes you different just makes you more visible to a data mining algorithm.
The other interesting bit from the talk is about 20 minutes through, where starts to address ways to defeat such methods. There aren’t many good ideas, because of the tradeoffs involved in each, but it’s interesting to think about.
Reader Eric Mika sent a link to the video of Obama’s speech that I mentioned a couple days ago. The speech was knocked from the headlines by news of Arlen Specter leaving the Republican party within just a few hours, so this is my chance to repeat the story again.
Specter’s defection is only relevant (if it’s relevant at all) until the next election cycle, so it’s frustrating to see something that could affect us for five to fifty years pre-empted by what talking heads are more comfortable bloviating about. It’s a reminder that with all the progress we’ve made on how quickly we can distribute news, and the increase in the number of outlets by which it’s available, the quality and thoughtfulness of the product has only been further undermined.
Update, a few hours later: it’s a battle of the readers! now Jamie Alessio passed along a high quality video of the the President’s speech from the White House channel on YouTube. Here’s the embedded version:
Every book ever written about marketing will at some point dig up that old, familiar line: “I know half my advertising is wasted—I just don’t know which half.”
The article by Seth Stevenson goes on to discuss What Sticks, by Rex Briggs and Greg Stuart, a pair of marketing researchers who study the advertising industry. Mad Men notwithstanding, I find the topic fascinating as a trained designer (trained meaning someone who learned to make such things) who happily pays Comcast $12.95 a month for the privilege to never hear or see Levitra, Viagra, or Cialis advertisements.
But separately, and as someone who did a lecture last night, I really enjoyed this point about anecdotes:
Why is this anecdote-laden style so popular with business authors, and so successful (to the tune of best-selling books and huge speaking fees)? I think it comes down to two things: 1) Fascinating anecdotes can, just by themselves, make you feel like you’ve really learned something… 2) A skillful anecdote-wielder can trick us into thinking the anecdote is prescriptive. In fact, what’s being sold is success by association. It’s no coincidence that [one such book talks] about the iPod—a recent mega-hit we’re all familiar with—in at least three chapters. It’s tempting to believe that bite-sized anecdotes about how the iPod was conceived, or designed, or marketed will reveal the secret formula for kicking butt with our own projects. Of course, it’s never that simple. An anecdote is a single data point, …
I find the first point interesting in light of the way in which we digest information from the world around us. We’re continually consuming data and then trying to synthesize it to larger meanings. And perhaps anecdotes are a kind of shortcut for this process because they provide something that’s already been digested but still feels substantial because it affords a brief leap in our thinking (and one that seems significant at the time).
Of course, unless you’re a baby bird, you’re better off digesting on your own.
As a side note, I went looking for an image to illustrate this blob of text, and was amused to find that the results from a google image search for “anecdote” consisted almost entirely of cartoons. Which reminds me of a story…
Paola’s incredibly sharp. Don’t turn it off in the first few minutes, however; I found that it wasn’t until about five or even ten minutes into the show that she began to sound like herself. I guess it takes a while to get past the requisite television pleasantries and the basic design-isms.
The full transcript doesn’t seem to be available freely, however some excerpts:
And I believe that design is one of the highest forms of human creative expression.
I would never dare say that! But I’ll secretly root for her making her case.
And also, I believe that designers, when they’re good, take revolutions in science and in technology, and they transform them into objects that people like us can use.
Doesn’t that make you want to be a designer when you grow up?
Regarding the name of the show, and the notion of elasticity:
…it was about showing how we need to adapt to different conditions every single day. Just work across different time zones, go fast and slow, use different means of communication, look at things at different scales. You know, some of us are perfectly elastic. And instead, some others get a little bit of stretch marks. And some others just cannot deal with it.
And designers help us cope with all these changes.
Her ability to speak plainly and clearly reinforces her point about designers and their role in society. (And if you don’t agree, consider what sort of garbage she could have said, or rather that most would have said, speaking about such a trendy oh-so-futuristic show.)
In the interest of full disclosure, she does mention my work (very briefly), but that’s not until about halfway through, so it shouldn’t interfere with your enjoyment of the rest of the interview.
Mark Hansen is one of the nicest and most intelligent people you’ll ever meet. He was one of the speakers at the symposium at last Fall’s Visualizar workshop in Madrid, and Medialab Prado has now put the video of Mark’s talk (and others) online. Check it out:
Mark has a Ph.D. in Statistics and along with his UCLA courses like Statistical Computing and Advanced Regression, has taught one called Database Aesthetics, which he describes a bit in his talk. You might also be familiar with his piece Listening Post, which he created with Ben Rubin.
Visualizing Data is my book about computational information design. It covers the path from raw data to how we understand it, detailing how to begin with a set of numbers and produce images or software that lets you view and interact with information. Unlike nearly all books in this field, it is a hands-on guide intended for people who want to learn how to actually build a data visualization.
The text was published by O’Reilly in December 2007 and can be found at Amazon and elsewhere. Amazon also has an edition for the Kindle, for people who aren’t into the dead tree thing. (Proceeds from Amazon links found on this page are used to pay my web hosting bill.)
The book covers ideas found in my Ph.D. dissertation, which is basis for Chapter 1. The next chapter is an extremely brief introduction to Processing, which is used for the examples. Next is (chapter 3) is a simple mapping project to place data points on a map of the United States. Of course, the idea is not that lots of people want to visualize data for each of 50 states. Instead, it’s a jumping off point for learning how to lay out data spatially.
The chapters that follow cover six more projects, such as salary vs. performance (Chapter 5), zipdecode (Chapter 6), followed by more advanced topics dealing with trees, treemaps, hierarchies, and recursion (Chapter 7), plus graphs and networks (Chapter 8).
This site is used for follow-up code and writing about related topics.