Sunday, January 25, 2009

Seeing Is Believing

NEW YORK, New York -- If you've ever seen Ricky Gervais' "Politics" comedy show, you may remember him yelling "Politics ... is ... everywhere!" at the beginning. And since they screwed things up so royally, business leaders from Rick Wagoner to John Thain now would have to agree.

But for their lackeys, it's data that's everywhere. Thanks to advances in computing and information technology, our society is increasingly data-driven. And for many college graduates in the US and other rich-world countries, a large part of our jobs (still, even post-Sept. 15, 2008) consists of hunting down information, cutting it, and presenting it. The rat race in Java.

"Wearing pin-striped pantsuits as part of the knowledge economy is so sexy."

So it's probably been inevitable for some time that our dependence on data was to be internalized and something creative said or done with it.

Enter visualization. That, as noted in an International Herald Tribune article last month, is the illustration of complicated data, usually using advanced software, so that people can understand it. "Visualization comes in the form of still images, moving ones and three-dimensional models that depict elusive, often abstract phenomena such as the movement of Internet traffic, scientific theories or a city's emotional landscape," in the IHT's words. And with data-driven visualization now one of the fastest-growing areas of design, even rock groups are utilizing visualization programs. The video for Radiohead's song "House of Cards" was created without any cameras, for instance, but using Process, a program that plots information about objects and creates 3-D representations of them.

As we grow more reliant on Internet-oriented technologies and if the "knowledge-based" service economy continues to increase its dominance (though a 19th-century farm probably had a lot of "knowledge" too), we can likely count on progressively advanced visualization software and ever more sophisticated visualization techniques. And as the creators of those techniques will have to push themselves to new limits, their audiences will likely also have to mentally adjust -- just as someone in the 18th century may well have burnt Thom Yorke of Radiohead at the stake after watching his video.

Visualization is likely to grow more ubiquitous because we rely on data to give us objective information about the world -- to bring order on patterns and trends. Yet data itself, a pile of jumbled numbers and decimals, is inherently disordered and difficult for humans to make sense of quickly.

To that end, we employ visualization to dumb down numbers into visual patterns for us. Case in point: This past year as never before, millions of Americans began their day by obsessively checking the interactive map at The pile of numbers the map was based on would have been a mess to read (see the data below the map), but the visualization gave you an immediate sense of who was ahead in which polls.

Of course, beyond election cycles there are myriad places where data can be visualized, as the Boston Globe reported last month. Maybe with Obama's embrace of the Freedom of Information Act and government openness, the awkward bureaucratic sites of today (here's one for the US Bureau of Economic Analysis I have to use a lot -- Uncle Sam collects great data, but the interface is a mess and if you're a light bulb short of a working lamp you often have to call the gov't economists to help you find what you need) will give way to more user (aka voter) friendly visualizations of government data and stats to give us an idea of what's going on with our country.

Ahead in the polls: Visualizing shipping lanes and whale concentrations

Unlike the government (for now), the more innovative newsmedia websites are quickly trying to adapt; New York Magazine recently wrote of the web R&D department the New York Times has created. ["Bloggers" may hail the Huffington Post and other sketchy opinion-based rantfests (like this site) as the future of information, but if the future is to bring with it expensive new Net technologies, then we're better off with the NYT than Arianna Huffington leading the way.]

But the most stunning uses of visualization that make the future extremely exciting for me were, alas, museum pieces. From cartographic representations of money spent on correctional facilities for residents of different New York neighborhoods to horrifyingly intricate 3-D waterfalls of data showing international lines of communication (i.e., phone calls), the Museum of Modern Art's "Design and the Elastic Mind" show last spring demonstrated the power of the eyeball, so to speak. With its many examples of cutting-edge visualization methods, Nicolai Ourousoff, the NYT's art and architecture critic, called the show as "revolutionary" as MoMA's legendary "Machine Art" show of 1934.

Unfortunately, we at the Walter Duranty Report cannot re-create the show for you, and our medium is (as yet) an imperfect one to try to do so. But we can express hope that our new president re-creates "Design and the Elastic Mind" by fully committing to opening up the government online -- one of the most promising avenues to give citizens insight into what the labyrinthine hulk of agencies that runs our country does. Doing so will require that visualization and greatly improved interfaces and search tools are used to give the average high-schooler doing a report or the average "knowledge-services" employee putting together a late-night report on a sector for investors some clue of what's going on with Medicare expenditures or agricultural output. And the BEA can get the first overhaul.

As a co-worker from South America who has also worked in France and Italy once said, "after coming to the US and seeing how much data is available to anybody, I became convinced that the more advanced and democratic a country is, the more data it has." And with each passing day, data ... is ... everywhere.

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