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Time/Data/Visualisation

Time/Data/Visualisation

Bye Bye Beautiful Data

Last week the Beautiful Data workshop organised by metaLab (at) Harvard university came to an end. Twelve intense days filled with talks, discussions, hands-on workshops and visits to local museums as well as, of course, local bars.

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Matthew Battles aggregating the participants question on an interactive blackboard.

The highlight, for me, were the people that gathered in the well air-conditioned, dimly lit premises of Harvard’s project space arts@29garden. For a workshop of this nature you can have the best possible organisation – and boy were the metaLab folks organised – what makes it in the end a success or not is finding the right mixture of participants, speakers as well as staff. The “diverse, elite group of curators, scholars, and technologists”, as the programme described the invited participants, turned out to be a very open, social and intellectually stimulating bunch from mostly the United States, but also Mexico and central Europe.

An impressive line-up of guest speakers accompanied us throughout the two weeks. Seb Chan’s talk left a lasting impression on me and, I think, on most participants. He presented his work at the Cooper Hewitt museum on making their online collection accessible and usable on the web. It all seemed so simple when Seb walked us through the features of their new website, but the takeaway point of it all was the need to let go of perfection. Data will never be perfect, collections data certainly not; the point is to get it out there anyway and to do something with it. Museums and institutions need to partly let go of their authority and expose their imperfections, so that the public can understand and, if necessary, help out. What became evident throughout the two weeks is that collections holders themselves don’t necessarily know much about their own data and that by opening it up they could learn a lot about their own history.

David Weinberger similarly pointed out the changing nature of authority. Our knowledge has, for centuries, been shaped by books and papers: truth is what it says in the book. Today, Wikipedia took on the position of the Encyclopedia Britannica in being the turn to place for finding “truth”. Part of Wikipedia’s success, Weinbergar says, is its ability to acknowledge its own fallibility. Institutions who want to remain credible, need to begin communicating their imperfection. It can start as simple as with changing the wording on a website, like Cooper-Hewitt’s collection being “pretty confident” about knowing something, rather than pretending something to be absolutely certain.

Of course, we participants were also invited to share our insights in ‘lighting talks’ that took anywhere between 5 to 15 minutes. Personally, I enjoyed these peer presentations the most. We had Pietro Santachiara talking about the “Tourist in Rome Syndrome”; the belief that everything is important and the importance of leaving things away. Gudrun Buehl told us about their ‘aztec style’ – or forged Aztecan? – birthing statue and how it made its way into Indiana Jones. Rich Barrett-Small from the Tate presented what they got out of making their dataset available on GitHub and copyright lawyer Katherine DeVos Devine dismantled the photographing policies of the Tate and other participant’s institutions on the spot.

I can’t mention all the highlights. If I could I would write more about the work done by the metaLab folk themselves: Jeffrey Schnapp’s presentation on Curarium, Jeff Steward’s visualisation of movements and interactions within the Harvard Art Museum collection and Yanni Loukissas’ time-wise visualisations of the Harvard Arboretum dataset.

I would also write more about the project work undertaken by the participants in the second week and the amazing outcomes, which I hope will be made accessible in some form very soon. Rich’s Colour Lens, a colour based cross-collection browser is already online. Steven Lubar outlines his impression of the workshop on his own blog and the project essay by Kristina Van Dyke and Steven Lubar is accessible as well. Cristoforo Magliozzi from metaLab was instrumental in producing videos together with the participants, such as Gudrun and Pietro’s Memorable Encounter and Lanfranco Aceti and Vincent Brown’s Border Cuts.

I’ll update this post with links to further projects once they become available. For now, I end with a big Thank You to everyone at metaLab, all the participants and speakers, and last but not least the Getty Foundation for their generous support.

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Beautiful Data at Harvard University

Beautiful Data, a summer institute for telling stories with open art collections brings together museum professionals, scholars and technologist to work on new ways of making use of the growing amount of digital collections data that is becoming accessible

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Image: The workshop will take place at Arts @ 29 Garden, the creative project space of Harvard University

During the next two weeks, I will take part in this summer institute organised by Harvard’s metaLAB and funded by The Getty Foundation. I have been invited as one of 22 professionals and academics in the field of museums, archives and digital humanities to work on concepts and practical solutions for new ways of art-historical storytelling using open digital collections and to critically discuss the ethical, curatorial and intellectual challenges of digital media in a cultural context.

I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to give away of the programme here, but I’m impressed by the number of high-profile speakers and participants the organisers managed to gather for, what can only be, an exciting, stimulating and challenging workshop. Watch this space for updates and outcomes.

Time Symposium

As part of the Royal College of Art School of Design’s contribution to the Research Methods Course, we have organised a symposium dedicated to Time and Design. It takes place on the 19th of March, 10:00. If you are from outside the RCA and plan to attend, please email design-research@rca.ac.uk to let us know. Entrance is from Jay Mews.

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Time is the universal metric, a context for every object, life, event, alteration – but how do we design with time? What should time look like, how do we perceive it and how does it feed into how we live, act and remember? The symposium will set out historical, conceptual and cognitive problems that beset thinking about time, featuring the following speakers from the areas of psychology, history, engineering and design:

Claudia Hammond is an award-winning broadcaster, writer and psychology lecturer and the presenter of All in the Mind on BBC Radio 4, as well as programmes on BBC World Service and BBC World News TV. She is the author of the book “Time Warped” in which she delves into the mysteries of time perception. In her talk she shows how malleable our experience of time is and which factors influence how we perceive time.

Siân Lindley is part of the Socio-Digital Systems group at Microsoft Research, where she studies technologies in use and the practices that are built up around them. Siân presents two of her projects on using digital timelines for narrating personal histories, which yield unexpected insights into how representations of time shape our retelling of the past.

Matthew Shaw’s research in the history of the French Revolution, which he developed from his PhD into a major book, sheds light on perhaps one of the boldest reforms undertaken in Revolutionary France: the redesign of time itself. For almost a decade the French calendar had not only its own months and years but also decimalised hours and minutes.

John Taylor’s most ubiquitous invention has probably been used by anyone who ever switched on a kettle. However, it is his work on clocks that most captivates him. Turned inside out and controlled by a giant time-devouring mechanical creature, John’s Corpus clock required two hundred engineers, scientists and craftsmen, five years of his time, one million pounds and one Stephen Hawking for its unveiling on the wall of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University.

Peter Bennett introduces physicality in how we interact with computers through his research on Tangible Interfaces at the Bristol Interaction & Graphics Lab. A physical interface for time however proved to be problematic. Is time flexible or solid? Is time a single object or many? Is time a line, circle, spiral or even a shape at all? It is this ambiguous nature of how time can be physically represented and controlled that Peter explores in his work.

Tree of Time: ChronoZoom

I have sacrificed parts of my Christmas break to develop something for Visualizing.org’s Visualizing Time challenge: A Hierarchical Time Tree visualisation which offers new insights into the dataset that powers the original ChronoZoom interface.

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In 2009, Walter Alvarez was looking for a way to communicate the enormous time frames that make up the history of the universe and conceived the idea of ChronoZoom, which was released as an early prototype in 2010. Since then, the visualisation evolved quite a bit and by now contains a rich collection of data. What I only found out recently, is that all of this data is also accessible separate from the visualisation through a dedicated API.

Recently, the makers of ChronoZoom launched a contest in collaboration with the platform Visualizing.org in order to, I’d guess, promote the use of this API and at the same time tackle some of the problems they encountered.
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Behind the Scenes: ChronoZoom

In this post I will try to reproduce the steps that lead to my visualisation of ChronoZoom timelines. I tried to save the important mile stones as individual files and you can find them at the beginning of this post. It is fairly technical and in a way written more as a record for myself than for a general audience. So bear with me, should you decide to read this and feel free to ask questions in the comment section.

evolution

Versions

v0.1, v0.2, v0.3, v0.4, v0.5, v0.6, v0.7, v0.8, v0.9, v0.10, v0.11, v0.12, v0.13, v0.14, v0.15, v0.16, v0.17, v0.18, v0.19, v0.20, v0.21, v0.22, v0.23, v0.24, v0.25, v0.26, v0.27, v0.28, v0.29, v0.30, v0.31, v0.32, v1.0b, Final

ChronoZoom

Visualizing.org has partnered up with the people behind ChronoZoom. ChronoZoom is both a dataset containing curated timelines of the history of the cosmos and the world, as well as visual interface for exploring those timelines. Much in the same tradition as some of the earliest timelines, which aimed to map all of time – from the Creation to the last Judgement – ChronoZoom contains events since the Big Bang up to our current times. If you somehow haven’t come across it yet, you should give it a try here.
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