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.


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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The Creation

The great ambition of the 18th century designers of visual timelines was to depict the complete history of time, which was believed to have begun around 4004 BC. What a disappointment it must have been, when it started to become evident, that this period actually encompasses only a tiny fragment of the universe’s lifetime.

The film and motion design studio fink however has not let this “recent” discoveries stop him from attempting to give a complete account of the history of the universe. As of November, his animations will illuminate the facade of the ME hotel in London.

via the creators project

Design Process Anno 1778

In A Description Of A Chart Of Biography Joseph Priestley offers an insight into some of the design decisions he took when working on his Chart of Biography, one of the earliest known timeline visualisations containing two thousand names and lifespans.

Priestley's Chart of Biography

What has caught my attention when reading Priestley’s Description Of A Chart Of Biography, is how well one can relate to his process and the decisions he took when working on the chart, although he was designing for an entirely different audience and medium than we do today. It seems that the process for designing information visualisations has not changed significantly in more than 200 years.

I have extracted from his descriptions four general rules, that Priestley seemed to adhere to (consciously or not) and that I and probably many others still apply today:

Establish Guidelines
Before one can begin to put data into visuals, it is important to define some guidelines on how this transformation will occur. For it is always a transformation and only when it is performed in the same way for every instance of data, it is possible to contextualise and compare.
Allow Interpretation
There will be cases where a transformation can not be performed in the way intended. At first, one should check whether this might be due to a mistake in the guidelines and, if yes, adapt the guidelines for all elements. However, often this can lead to things feel right in one case, and feel awkward in all the others, at which point it is important to trust one’s instinct as a designer and break one’s own rules.
Allow Redundancy
Tufte’s Data-Ink Ratio is an encouragement to remove clutter from data visualisation, however one should not refrain from displaying redundant information when it helps the usability and understandability of a graphic.
Allow Involvement
A visualisation should not be designed to simply be looked at, but to be used. During the design process one should keep in mind how a user might potentially interact and interfere with the graphic, be it a printed, digital or physical implementation.

After the jump, I will show by example how those rules have been applied by Priestley.
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