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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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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.

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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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Challenges for Time as Digital Data

I have recently been invited to present my research at the Herrenhausen Conference on Digital Humanities. The Volkswagen Foundation, who organised the event, offered travel grants for young researchers to present their research topic in a short talk and a poster. Instead of presenting my research as a whole (which we PhD students have to do over and over again), I chose to talk only about an aspect of it: the problem of representing time digitally.

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Read on for the paper on which my talk was based. I presented it, along with this poster, at the Herrenhausen Conference: “(Digital) Humanities Revisited — Challenges and Opportunitiesin the Digital Age” at the Herrenhausen Palace, Hanover/Germany, December 5-7, 2013.

In digital humanities, there usually is a gap between digitally stored data and the collected data. The gap is due to the (structural) changes that data needs to undergo in order to be stored within a digital structure. This gap may be small, in the case of natively digital data such as a message on Twitter: a tweet can be stored close to its ‘original’ format, but it still looses a lot of its frame of reference (the potential audience at a specific point in time, the actual audience, the potential triggers of the message etc.). In digital humanities this distance may become so large that some researchers argue, the term data should be largely abandoned and replaced with capta. Capta, the taken, in contrast to data, the given, should emphasise the interpretative and observer dependent nature of data in the humanities [1]. This problem relates to all kinds of data, whether categorical, quantitative, spatial or temporal. I will however focus only on the last type. Time and temporal expressions are particularly susceptible to multiple modes of interpretation and (unintended) modifications due to limitations in digital data structures, but also due to the ambiguous and subjective nature of time itself.

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[1] Johanna Drucker, Humanities approaches to graphical display, 2011

The Tate Collection on GitHub

OpenGLAM alerted me via Twitter that the entire digital collection of the Tate is available on GitHub. I haven’t heard of any other institution who makes their collection available through this platform. It does kind of give a lot away, but then again, that’s the whole point of open data.

Why not Linked Data, asks a fellow Tweeter and Tate’s web architect Rich Barrett-Small justifies their move to GitHub with it being the most time- and cost-effective solution to get the data out there – for now.

Yes, SPARQL endpoints are the weapon of choice these days, but what’s wrong with using GitHub? It’s an incredibly versatile platform by far not limited to programmers, but equally useful for thesis writing or democracy.

What’s great about using GitHub, as opposed to APIs, is that it doesn’t only give you access to the data, it gives you the data. Maybe I’m old school, but I do like having real files on my hard drive, as opposed to it all being locked off in a cloud. And it’s still possible to keep the data updated, by syncing it with the original repository.

But enough about pros and cons of technical details, let’s have a look at what Tate offers.

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