Data Activism: Geeks for Good

21 12 2009

Data Activism is a new an emerging trend with designers, developers and artist utilizing technology to help society understand and address the issues of our times.

The new U.S. Administration has established initiatives to make government data available to the public.  This is converging with the growing number of developers and designers that are familiar with mash-up’s and data visualization technologies.  The convergence of these trends create the ability for developers, designers and artist to create apps, sites and art that educate and provide transparency to the government.

Creating Government Transparency

The Open Government Directive is a memo sent by the White House on December 8th, 2009 directs federal agencies to:

  1. Publish Government Information Online
  2. Improve the Quality of Government Information
  3. Create and Institutionalize a Culture of Open Government
  4. Create an Enabling Policy Framework for Open Government

Each of these are follow with specific actions that must start to show results in the next couple of months.  The main hub for this information will be, providing Federal data sets, and links to State and local efforts as well. Screenshot
This is amazing progress for the government that will bring both innovation and efficiency.  Possibilities will be opened up as great designers get creative on representing the governments data.  The government agencies will be pressured to improve as their performance becomes public knowledge.  All of this is a win for Americans with more services, useful information and government efficiency.

Everyone can participate by using the data, giving feedback, building visualizations, building reports, etc.  You can get involved by yourself, or join a team of like minded individuals.  What are you waiting for?



If you have other resources or examples you recommend, add them as comments and I will update this article.

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Confession of Photo Booth Addict

18 12 2009

Smile SantaThat is what my wife would say.

You might read the title and think that I am always taking pictures in photo booths, but it is actually much worse… In the last 5 years I have built and programmed about 5 photo booth variations…. and of course there are a lot of pictures to go along with those.

So it all started when I went to my friend Joey’s wedding.  I was discussing with a buddy that we should start a business.  Then I recalled having used a photo booth at another friends wedding in California the year before.  It was a great idea… we would go into the photo booth business of renting out photo booths and services to special events: Weddings with scrapbooks, corporate Christmas parties, etc.The First Photo Booth I Built

Next I went online and researched the cost… they are actually pretty pricey and require chemicals, film, etc.  After a couple of days I started to think, “how hard could it be, all that is needed is to take a couple of pictures and print them out.”  Well it is not that hard, but it is not that easy either.

To make a very long story short I have gone in and out of the photo booth business.  In the process I have used a PHP\Command Line scripted software, written one in C# and written another in Processing.  I have built a booth out of wood, plastic, an old picture frame, steel and now a antique radio.

Antique Radio - Soon to be a Photo Booth

Some of these photo booths have been for the business, but at this point that is no longer the motivation. I really enjoy the time spent on these creations. It is an opportunity to bring all of the computer graphics geekiness to my family and friends in a way that they love.

Antique Radio Photo BoothAbove is a picture of the new booth.  As for the software, I bought it fromBreezeSystems ($75)… and it is better than anything I ever wrote.  There is still some finishing work needed, but the new booth is ready for our holiday party.

My Dog, Sally, in a Photo Booth

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Why Improving Data Visualization and Interaction Matters

15 12 2009

There is growing interest in visualizing and interacting with data for good reason.  Improving the speed and intuitiveness of data representation is required as people interact with more and more information.
Data Overload
A UC San Diego study reported on by the Huffington Post article states that “The researchers calculated that we consumed, on average, 10, 845 trillion words in 2008, or about 100,000 words per American, per day.”  And it is not just words, there are images, audio, games and more giving the average American consumption of 34 gigabyte per person, per day.

So you will have to note the word is “consume,” but one may want to argue that only some consumption really has value.  Meaning just because it was streamed in a person’s direction was meaningful information transfered from the broadcast media to the person.  And that answer is that very little of that data really becomes information and knowledge for the person who experiences it.

This is where the study and practice of Data Visualization and Interaction becomes important.  How can developers and designers make there information the easiest, quickest and most intuitive to comprehend?  Those that are good and great at reducing the interface and letting people work with the data will be the winners.

A number of web sites and applications are investing and exploring how data visualization can help organize their content.    Digg Labs has 6 different visualizations to navigate and uncover interesting news and content.

Digg 365 has a number of visualizations they use to help shoppers find what they are looking for… even if the shoppers don’t know it (The mind behind a lot of the Etsy visualizations is Jared Tarbell who is know for some great computer generate art using flash and processing).Etsy Shop by ColorAnother site known for its great traditional graphs is (disclosure: I work for Intuit which recently acquired Mint).  Mint is excelling at helping people understand there finances and budgeting trends.

While the above examples are diverse there is a common theme of helping the users of the sites better navigate content and data.

The capacity for humans to consume information cannot increase as rapidly as our systems are making it available to us.  People will focus on the information that is important and easy to consume.  Good data design can add tremendous value to sites and business that get it, making them more usable and engaging to their users.

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Microsoft Vedea comes after Processing

4 12 2009

Microsoft Visualization Language The Vedea Project Create. See. Understand.

“Vedea is a prototype of a new experimental language for creating interactive infographics, data visualizations and computational art.”

Microsoft has noticed what the guys at MIT have been up to with Processing and is preparing to launch Vedea, which they describe as “a new visualization language.”  Just knowing Microsoft many of us may have a little skepticism… not that the tool won’t be good or exciting, but will it be open, and free?  Being a strong believer in competition this entry can only make the space better, with more minds working to improve the creation of data visualization.

On the Microsoft Research Blog there is a write up with some detail, including some code snippets.  In reviewing the code it looks like the language will offer some predefined GUI Components and Data Visualizations built in.  This could actually be very valuable including these in the core (as long as it is extensible with external libraries).  Processing today is open and there are libraries that cover these areas, but integration can be  cumbersome.

It looks like launch is planned for early 2010.

Update: 12/5/09

Here is a blog post detailing a  demo of Vedea with the data, code and an image of the data visualization it created.

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My Data Visualization Holiday Wish List

1 12 2009

As I have been writing this blog I have come across a number of great minds in the Data Visualization space and some of their books.  My Amazon wishlist has actually gotten quite long, but I narrowed it down to 3 books I want to add to my Data Visualization library:

Beautiful Data by Jeff Hammerbacher and Toby Segaran has caught my eye for a while, but it was not until I saw it in Barnes and Noble that it made my list.  There are 39 contributors that share some of their greatest data visualization with a large number of color pages showcasing their work.  This is the kind of book that can get you out of a mental block and inspire you to create.

Running the Numbers: An American Self-portrait by Chris Jordan made my list because of his Ted talk.  If you have not seen Chris Jordan pictures some shocking stats please do.  It is an inspiring video demonstrating how Art and Visualization can help the human mind make sense of the biggest issues facing society today.  I came aware motivated to make the world a better place and inspired that data visualization can play a role in creating change.  I am really excited to all of the “portraits” that are included in the book.

The Visual Miscellaneum by David McCandless proposes to be a collection of great data visualisations, diagrams and infographics.  I have seen the book promoted on the well designed site of David’s Information is Beautiful.   You can just tell from the site that this book will be a good one.  I recently used one of the infographics he contributed to for a political conversation with my wife, regarding the traits of the left vs the right.

So there are the 3… and yes, my order is in and they are on their way.  Lots of good reading and sources for inspiration.