UNTIL RECENTLY, A good spreadsheet or perhaps a pie chart might have been sufficient to get a firm grip on a dataset. However, making sense of big data requires more,
and with our increasing inundation
with data comes new and creative opportunities to build unique interfaces.
That is why, powered by new technologies such as touchscreens and giant LCD monitors, so-called “data artists” are experimenting with ways to
make huge amounts of data comprehensible and accessible to a broader
range of people, and then displaying
their data visualizations inside venues
like the corporate facilities of companies like Microsoft and Google.
Whether people are familiar with
the term “data visualization” or not,
they are certainly aware of some of the
more popular implementations of it.
For instance, the Facebook Timeline
is a visualization tool designed by data
artist Nicholas Felton as a way of manipulating and organizing the information in Facebook’s database.
“Those who create data visualization are providing the beautiful, easy-to-use interfaces that lie on top of massive amounts of number crunching
from a growing array of sources,” observes Justin Langseth, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based startup Zoomdata.
Indeed, like all art, data visualizations come in many shapes and flavors—
from the inventive software-based work
of Jer Thorp to the big-screen animated
films from Pixar Animation Studios;
from the business solutions of Zoomdata to the documentary “Clouds” by
James George on the emerging field of
data visualization (filmed using Microsoft Kinect’s Depth camera paired with
a digital SLR video), which premiered
recently at the Sundance Film Festival.
In fact, George’s work in video and
photography epitomizes the relation-
ship between art and computer sci-
ence. Besides being an independent
artist, he is also the first artist-in-resi-
dence at Microsoft Research’s Studio
99 Gallery, and is a lecturer on computational processes in video art at New
York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.
One of George’s experiments in
computational photography began
with a story he heard on the radio about
a surveillance system that was to be installed to combat crime in the New York
City subway system. Cameras were to
be mounted in all subway stations and,
instead of having the monitors watched
by people, AI algorithms would be used
to identify threats.
“The system failed miserably be-
cause there were too many passen-
gers, too much data being generated,”
George recalls. “So the system was
switched off, but the cameras are still
there today, attached to computers
that aren’t turned on.”
George and his team had been ex-
perimenting with the Microsoft Ki-
nect camera, which sees the world in
three dimensions, transforming it
into a dataset that can be manipulated
“We took the camera into the subway
system and began capturing image data
with the intention of re-creating the way
the security system might have seen the
world if it had worked,” he explains. “We
called it ‘DepthEditorDebug,’ after the
name of the app we used to make it, and
what it did was illustrate that, as in any
art form, there is a level of interpretation
depending on what you leave in, what
you leave out, or what you fix—known
as ‘cleaning the data.’ So data visualization is a very expressive medium in the
same way that painting can be expressive. The role of the artists is to apply
their insight to the data and then choose
Big Data Meaningful
New techniques are designed to translate
“invisible numbers” into visible images.
Society | DOI: 10.1145/2601074
An image from “Clouds,” a “computational documentary” by James George in collaboration
with Jonathan Minard, which depicts people discussing creative use of code.