Sunday, April 29, 2012
Once more, both the event’s organisation and atmosphere were excellent. Many thanks to the organising ad agency for that! This year’s conference topic being sustainability meant that the focus went beyond everyday design opportunities but also considered the global impact of the work.
The opening talk was given by Thomas Henningsen of Greenpeace. He presented a film showing images created by Greenpeace of the decades, noting that the visuals play a huge role in raising awareness. Not only by illustrating the issues at hand but also by highlighting the power difference of the huge corporate tanker fighting off people in tiny boats. Arguable Greenpeace have mastered this channel of communication over the decades (although Henningsen showed a few photos where they failed communicating on symbolic or even technical levels as well).
The focus in this style of communication is on photographic imagery. Even if the information to be communicated is based on data, it is often visualised in photos, for example by showing a typically sized fish caught 50 years ago, next to the typical size you catch today. The final part of the talk was dedicated to rainforest and how Greenpeace try to use before (seemingly infinite rainforest) vs. after (seemingly infinite soy bean plantations) imagery to illustrate the natural resources destroyed there.
The following speaker was Norbert Bolz, a communication theorist from Berlin. Giving the only talk without any visual aides he focused on how the use of images changed communication in the last two decades, apparently known as the Iconic Turn.
Media such as newspapers have embraced images in that time, for their ability to provide concise messages and firing straight into people’s brains. This is problematic for reasons such as a shift in the topics chosen by media (if you can’t take a photo of it, it won’t make it to the title page) as well as the fact that you can hardly argue with – or negate – an image.
Then Bolz touched the topic of information, noting that information itself is not interesing and typically only information you have a personal interest in has a chance of making its way through. Usually more information will not help you reach a reasonable decision, it will rather increase confusion. A fact that marketers love and most product searches on the internet support, I guess.
The big problem there seems to come from our limited ability to absorb information. And our questionable skills at determining which parts of the information we receive are worth considering: there is a strong bias towards information looking new and interesting rather than to it providing new facts; and there is also the problem with the most important pieces of information in some context not necessarily being those containing the biggest amount of data.
Bolz returned to the topic of design by presenting it as the ‘rhetorics of the technical world’, which gives (interaction) designers great power and responsibility.
In the lunch break (really nice cake at the stall there!) I took a look at some of the student projects shown in the basement. Once more fun and interesting stuff there. It ranged from a EEG ‘headset’ that uses your brainwaves to draw coloured graphs, to a potential installation for a bar or so which uses a camera to pick up the colour of the guests’ clothes and then picks that up to adapt the ambiance accordingly.
More directly data driven exhibits resulted from a project on prototyping that resulted in a book with instructions that should allow people to develop protoypes quickly. It seems that VVVV (apparently Windows-only) is the tool-du-jour for such projects which provides plenty of I/O interfaces, graphics capabilities and a graphical interface suitable for non-programmers. Is it Quartz Composer or steroids or does it suffer from similar inconveniences once you reach a certain level of complexity?
Another project tried to develop software to simplify the classification of resources by their properties. It used the really nice idea to visualise the result, thus giving a greater incentive for people to complete the classification. However, that was really purpose-made and used a very small vocabulary for the classification. So it would not be suitable for the typical tasks people in a library do.
After the lunch break the unique location of a church was used to have a short organ-concert (apparently purpose composed for the occasion). Then Stefanie Posavec spoke about her work coming from book design and engaging in a bunch of data projects. Her method is decidedly non-technical, meaning that she takes the chore of manually counting and adding the information upon her to create the graphics she makes. Accordingly she considers herself a data illustrator rather than some kind of analyst.
Being a technical a algorithm-minded person myself, I find that approach quite alien; If only because it misses the opportunity to let machines do the gruntwork and free the time for the tasks that cannot be automated as well. But as Posavec does not claim to be a data-wizard and does continue her manual work all the way through, the whole concept is consistent.
I really enjoyed her coloured long-multiplication images, by the way. Once again it’s a thing which seems like a lot of work and which due to its algorithmic nature does not require manual execution (and I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to explain most of the patterns with some basic number theory which should give a much better understanding). Still it seems like a fun and playful way of approaching such a dry topic:
The following speakers, Ben Kreukniet and Yannick Jaquet presented their work on light and projection design for events or shows, showing off a bunch of the projects they worked on. While some of them do look fascinating, I don’t think I care terribly much for these things.
After a further break, documentary director Michael Madsen spoke about his work on Into Eternity on a nuclear waste disposal site in Finland. His fascination for the topic comes from the fact that such a site is the first really long term project. If it takes a hundred thousand years for the waste to become reasonably less dangerous, what can be done to make sure nothing goes wrong with it in the meantime?
The final talk was by Manuel Lima who is known for his book and website on Visual Complexity. He showed many examples of graphs of recent years, and of centuries past, showing trends (an reoccurrences of old ideas). In the process he noted that the structures used in visualisation evolved from simple trees to more complex network graphs.
After our recent trip to Barcelona I particularly enjoyed this visualisation of tourist movements in Barcelona based on geotagged photos.
The following day there were a few ‘workshops’ which gave four of the speakers the opportunity to speak about the way they work. Michael Madsen highlighted that it’s important to fully immerse into a documentary he makes to get a great result and that information is not key, but understanding is.
Manuel Lima mentioned The Album of Science (apparently hard to find, but our library has a copy…) as a cool book for finding historical visualisations and gave the example of a study of classroom interaction which shows an animated network. My impression is that it’s really hard to get animation and automatic graph layout together (and while doing it, this example also lacks the aesthetic quality of many others).
Stefanie Posavec elaborated a bit more on her ‘manual’ work technique. In discussions the Scriptographer extension for Illustrator was mentioned which may reduce the pain of at least some repetitive tasks in the application.
Bonus kudos go to whoever picked that excellent photo projected behind Michael Madsen:
Saturday, February 18, 2012
After last year’s great ski trip to Italy, this year’s destination was Montriond in the Portes du Soleil ski resort in the French/Swiss Alps. As ski resorts go when you’re not living in the mountains, getting there was a bit of a nuisance: eight hours on trains plus a 90 minute bus ride and gave ample opportunity to watch countries and landscapes go by. On the way I got the impression that Switzerland is overrated: trains may be on time, but they are not particularly fast; the mountains are pretty but the villages you pass through look as uninspired as their German counterparts; somehow it looked better on TV.
The appartement we rented was very spacious, its ten beds easily accommodating our group of eight, there being two lounges for relaxing, a nice kitchen-slash-eating area and a lift opening right into the appartement (really as good as it looks on TV). In some parts of the flat one could even find an open WiFi connection. That said, some aspects of the flat seemed a bit odd. The primary one being the countless light switches on the walls for controlling many lights, none of which really lit the areas we used for reading or chopping as well as we wanted them to.
Given our talent in picking the worst possible week for skiing, this year’s excursion matched the week of the U.K. half-term holidays. Meaning that the whole ski resort was filled with English people. In fact – despite being France – the whole area seemed very welcoming to English speakers. Many of their (bad) websites are available in English and you can easily get by speaking English as well.
While heavily penetrated by ski pistes, the mountains and landscapes remain beautiful, and the Portes du Soleil ski area includes more than two hundred lifts and pistes, giving all of us the slopes adequate for our respective skillsets. Generally the lifts seemed older and slower than the ones we had in Dolomiti Superski last year which gave a couple of lengthy cold journeys. Still, there were no long queues at most times.
My impression was that the other people I saw on the pistes skied better than those I saw in Italy, even the snowboarders did a reasonably good job instead of just sitting on the slopes smoking. The markings of the pistes, despite being presumably standardised seemed to match that impression in that the difficulty of some of the easy blue pistes seemed similar to some red pistes in Italy.
The ski course I took at ESF Morzine was not as helpful as the previous ones I took. Somehow their courses take place at times which make it hard to actually be there if you have to catch a shuttle bus to/from your flat before or afterwards. And their administrative staff was not particularly helpful advising or accommodating my needs, either. So I ended up with an afternoon course which felt too easy and had a forced rush for the shuttle bus afterwards. And as my friends preferred skiing in the neighbouring Avoriaz part of the ski region which required a lengthy transfer to get to the ski course, it was a bit of a hassle and I missed some sessions because I did not always make it in time.
Finally there is the aspect of location. With the ski area being located in both France and Switzerland, there are a number of locations where you cross borders. Just that you will hardly notice you did so. It’s all quite transparent and simple – presumably because Switzerland finally entered the Schengen region. They did seem to do occasional checks of people’s backpacks, though. Being in France means that you can enjoy eating and fill your body with all the fat you need from croissants and cheese, with even the lowly supermarkets offering considerably more joy in those areas than their German counterparts do. Merci beaucoup.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Four weeks of holidays are over. We had a great trip and saw countless sights, occasionally in questionable weather. The number of countries I’ve been to has increased by two and the number of U.S. states I’ve been to rose by 10-12, depending on whether just driving through counts. People were nice and pretty much all our plans worked out. Amazing.
The executive summary would be as follows:
|Currency||157 ISK = 1 €||1,38 CAD = 1 €||1,36 USD = 1 €|
My iPod’s photo app claims we were here:
Saturday, September 24, 2011
I sympathise with Scandinavian countries and Iceland has always fascinated me. It is said have beautiful landscapes, friendly people (including a bunch of our favourite bands) and a great atmosphere. The country is both nearby and far away: a European country, yet close to the Arctic circle, part of the Schengen area, yet half-way to North America. Despite not being a big outdoor lover, I’ve always wanted to visit.
I had the opportunity to do that now. Not quite the big tour all the way around the island, but just a two-day stopover in Reykjavík for the time being, thanks to Icelandair offering such flights from Europe to North America with the option to enjoy a few days in their country. To us, the days in Reykjavík seemed worth the effort of doing the stopover. We stayed at 4th floor hotel near Hlemmur bus station (it looked bigger in the film) which has small rooms but was affordable and fine.
This very short stop in Iceland left a good impression. Everybody was friendly, helpful and totally used to the nuisance that are tourists. Somehow they manage to strike the right balance between being helpful and being blatantly commercial: You can buy pretty much any touristy attraction or convenience you may be interested in, but it doesn’t seem like anything is forced on you.
Downtown Reykjavík is conveniently small and easy to explore by foot. After just a day you start coming to streets, thinking “we’ve been here before”. So we looked at the city, the harbour, their new Harpa concert house, went up the concrete Hallgrímskirkja to enjoy the view on the city, peeked at the city hall, parliament, national library and took a short walk up a hill to Perlan a bunch of hot water tanks with a glass dome containing a cafeteria and restaurant on top.
Hot water is Iceland’s big source of energy. And there’s enough of it to heat pretty much everything to comfortable temperatures without a second thought. This leads to poorly insulated houses and quite a few buildings seeming to master everything without having chimneys. It also seems to result in a slightly sulphuric smell in the hot water, which takes some getting used to.
Before leaving, we indulged in a few hours of soaking in the Blue Lagoon spa which is fed by the wastewater of a power station. Luckily the power station is a geothermal one as well, so we’re just talking about a lot of hot water here – without a noticeable sulphuric smell even.
After that attraction we were dropped off at Keflavík airport again – offering a trip from your hotel to the airport with a spa-stop on the way just seems like a brilliant idea – and were comfortably tired for the flight to Toronto.
It’s not just the weekend and autumn starting now but also big holidays which will take us to Canada and New England for the coming month. While our tour from Toronto via Montréal, Boston and New York to Washington looks tiny on a map of the continent, there’s so much to see, meet and enjoy that a month will be over like that.
But before all that begins there are two days of stopover time in Reykjavík. Looking forward to that. Off to the train to the plane now …
Thursday, August 18, 2011
It being August again, it meant yet another trip to the Haldern Pop festival for me and my friends. I think this time our group consisted of more people than ever thanks to extra enthusiasm from Steffen’s friends.
This summer being the none-summer that it is, we were a bit weary about the prospect of having to camp for a few days. It had been cold and raining for weeks. So we went well-equipped, not just with raincoats and wellies but finally also with last-minute pavillion to keep us dry. That came extremely handy in the times when it did rain. But to be honest, the rain was nowhere as bad as we had feared.
Musically Haldern held quite a few well-known attractive bands for us this year and possibly the largest variety of completely unknown or just vaguely known bands we had so far.
Thursday night in Haldern being what it is, meant the usual less-than-convenient facts: loads of enthusiastic people already being present and the only music being in the beautiful but small Spiegelzelt – apparently re-named to Spiegeltent this year. So we had to start with a fair amount of queueing to begin with. To make things extra-unpleasant for the first-time Halderners it was raining at the time, but eventually we did manage to get into the tent, seeing the great gig of The Avett Brothers on the screen outside while waiting and making it inside in time for Anna Calvi who played a lovely gig.
Of course we couldn’t leave after just one gig, particularly after waiting in the rain for an hour. So we stayed on despite not knowing the upcoming band, called the Brandt Brauer Frick ensemble. It took ages for the stage to be set up for them. Probably because of all the ‘classical’ instruments – including a cello, a grand piano and a harp – which had to be set up for ten musicians. And then the music sounded like techno (not that I knew what real techno sounds like…). A surprise and a very pleasant one. A very cool gig and band discovery to start things off with!
And that was Thursday night already. More a chill-in phase than a huge amount of music. But with all the traveling and setting up we did before, it was time to enjoy some drinks in our pavillion.
After a really rainy morning, we went to pick up more people from the station, enjoyed some drinks in town and finally went to the main festival grounds. After being to the huge Hurricane festival two months ago, Haldern’s Reitplatz felt so sanely small and pleasant in comparison.
The first band we saw, Golden Kanine stressed the ever-increasing popularity of string and brass instruments in popular music. They were a pleasant enough start, though the trousers of the saxophonist kept freaking me out.
Next on were The Antlers, who also played a nice and somewhat unexciting gig. They also brought the first red keyboard on stage for this year. Somehow keyboards started being red rather than black two or three years ago.
Heading for the Spiegelzelt once more – somewhat easier now that the main stage was open and attracted the majority of the crowd – we saw the second half of the gig by Wild Beasts which was another pleasant surprise.
But things became even better afterwards. I had heard Socalled’s music before. Pretending to be Hip-hop (which I would not like) but being much cleverer and more fun that that. And the gig was just great. From the music to the magic tricks to the greedy Smurf shirt and the exotic music for pop music stages. Much recommended.
So far so good. Next on was Miss Li with a well performed show and the biggest saxophone on earth in her band – a concoction which just felt like a record company executives wet dream which can sing.
Next on were the wonderful Okkervil River. I keep enjoying their albums a lot. And consequently I enjoyed their gig. However, I kept thinking that they seemed somewhat bored and unengaged. Unlike at Haldern 2008 where I thought they were the best band playing the festival, they just didn’t engage me that much this time around.
The next band were The Wombats whose music I’ve always found enjoyable, perhaps even a bit more than is adequate for my age. Their gig was fun, but they also didn’t seem as engaging and fun as they did at Hurricane two months ago were they were great. Perhaps I should wonder whether bands just seem better the first time around or whether they play greater gigs in the afternoon when it’s still bright outside…
The headliner for the evening went by the Name of Tom Isfort & John Grant, a singer with a complete orchestra. Again this meant what felt like an eternal period to set up the stage and get the mikes right and then the music was rather disappointing. Not a good way to finish of such a great festival day!
But luckily there was still the Spiegelzelt! We managed to get in there half way through the show put on by three artists of the Erased Tapes label. We had missed the first one but managed to see the second half of Nils Frahm and Anne Müllers piano and cello gig which was a great and consoling way to end the evening before heading back to the tent on surprisingly well-lit paths. The campgrounds were lit by what looked like giant gas lights this year. Cool:
Saturday morning started off cloudy but there even was short period of sunshine. Which we luckily used to head for a swim in Haldern’s famous lake, meaning we missed out on the first few bands but were there in time for the James Blake gig which I really wanted to see after listening to the album a gazillion times and reading that he does these fantastic gigs. The music was still great, but I failed to see what’s particularly remarkable about the show they put on.
The following band were the rather curious LaBrassBanda, speaking Bavarian accents and playing brass music as the name suggests. Entertaining, but in the slightly creepy way you’d expect from people wearing T-Shirts about ‘butts’.
The next highlight was on its way with Wir Sind Helden. It’s been ages since I last saw them play live and – to be honest – I don’t find their newer albums quite as appealing. But their gig did not disappoint at all. A great performance, plenty of great old songs for grumpy old people like myself, a good spirit and even extra nice stage-decoration with lamps hanging above the band.
Some rain followed, thanks to plastic clothing it didn’t hurt. Queueing for the Spiegelzelt we saw Hauschka on the screen. That seemed like a pretty cool gig as well and included table tennis balls in a piano. A shame we couldn’t see it directly. Instead, we saw Warpaint who were on afterwards. Well worth seeing, it’s good to have strong girl bands.
And the next highlight was following! Namely this decade’s favourite hippie band, Fleet Foxes playing on the main stage. A good way to chill out, one could have almost gone to bed after that.
The final band on the main stage were Explosions in the Sky. Solid loud music with plenty of guitars, but somehow I found I can’t really match the quality of Mogwai, say and perhaps something either more lively or less noisy would have been more appropriate for the moment. Still, an impressive closing ‘act’ after which we were off to the tent.
And that was that, another Haldern was over and we awoke in the morning with rain coming down on our tent, trying to decided whether we need to get out of there quickly or whether it will become drier. We left soon-ish, managing to pack everything up and even fit seven people plus all the equipment into two small cars. To finish off the indulgence we treated ourselves to a big brunch in a café in nearby Hamminkeln. Despite being a somewhat un-festival-like thing, we learned last year that it’s a great way to recover from the weekend and gain strength for the way back home. It’s also local enough for the people working there to sympathise – after all, their kids were at the festival as well.
The trip home was uneventful. However, a bad aftertaste is left by my iPod not waking with me in the morning and having remained dead since. Without the web browser and Angry Birds in my pocket I’m feeling a bit naked.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
I’ve loved Les Trucs ever since accidentally seeing them (twice!) two years ago. Now they were playing in Kassel which was a great excuse to visit a friend there – and to introduce him to the beauty of ‘Nintendocore’.
Afterwards Les Trucs set up their countless little gadgets in the middle of the room and drowned us in noisy beepy goodness, all while jumping around, creating their own sweet mini-lightshows using the lamps they brought along. As great as I remembered them, with a few new songs mixed in and playing a gig that was a bit on the short side.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
After being reminded that (luckily!) the genre formerly known as antifolk isn’t quite dead yet – when Brook Pridemore came to play in Göttingen a few weeks ago, another musical gem from a similar genre played here as well: Dan and Rachel. With their acoustic guitar, keyboard, singing and storytelling between the songs which touch everything from drinking on broken Canading trains, to the financial crisis to bananageddon, they left the audience smiling all over.
Monday, April 11, 2011
I keep being fascinated by data visualisation. And from time to time I get to work on small projects visualising certain sets of data. That has raised my awareness of the topic in various ways. One of them is the not-so-great but probably also not-so-surprising observation that most data are visualised poorly. Poorly in the sense that they fall far short of what could have been done; poorly in that they use (or ‘leverage’ as the people who do that would say) visualisation techniques to show completely obvious facts; or poorly in that people are just jumping the (small) bandwagon of data visualisation hipness that’s been travelling the world for the past few years.
Of course lack of time and resources also play roles here. But they get right down to the heart of the problem: Visualising data is a hard task. And its difficulty lies at so many different levels that it’s simply quite unlikely for a person to have all the necessary skills and the necessary information at his or her hands. The first issue seems to be data gathering. A lot of interesting information is hard to get hold of – both because of incompetence and because of institutions not being keen on that information being accessible. And for a bunch of technical reasons which in particular mean that data from different sources cannot be simply thrown together but will need some type of conversion or interpretation beforehand, in other words: a lot of work.
The next bunch of problems is related to data analysis which needs to be done to simplify the noisy pure data and distill information from them. Doing that requires at least technical skills. When you’re dealing with many records, those may need to be quite advanced. And in case your analysis is to be more sophisticated than counting, knowing some statistics could be helpful as well.
Finally, you want to visualise the information you just discovered, possibly even communicating the reason for your conclusion or some kind of narrative along with that. Doing that will require graphical skills and a reasonable sense of æsthetics. It’s rare that a single person unites all those skills and it also seems quite rare for persons with those different skills to team up. Furthermore, while there are great tools for both data analysis and graphical visualisation, there seem to be no good interfaces between those tools that allow a fluid and efficient workflow.
Anyway, I had read about see conference in Wiesbaden a while ago and decided to go and listen to the wide variety of talks on different aspects of visualisation promised there. With seven talks in the course of the day, and a focus on sustainability, there was plenty to note and think about. All that among hundreds of interested people in the pleasant atmosphere of Wiesbaden’s Lutherkirche.
The day started off with the ‘keynote’ by sociologist Harald Welzer. He likes talking and spoke about the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, how they have largely been ignored for decades, and how the unsustainability of our lifestyle is cemented by that fact. The current situation in Fukushima was used as a current example. One whose direct effects are not immediate and which could do with both good visualisation and less stupid media. Referencing last year’s see conference – where apparently a bunch of speakers couldn’t come due flight paths being closed after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption – he pointed out that (a) the world didn’t end without planes [some truth in that, I guess, but not in the way he suggested it as this was for a very limited period of time, so mere delays and inconveniences were the consequence, rather than a change of lifestyle] and that furthermore (b) everybody keeps arguing that not having planes or roads would make us suffer from being less mobile while (c) nobody is supposed to note that having roads and planes also make us suffer from noise and death – so there’s at least a tacit tradeoff being made there which is rarely questioned. He also made some points on the popular topic of CO2 emissions and rightly remarked that these also lack immediacy and people fail to communicate the real problems. He pointed out that the popular image of a ‘carbon footprint’ used for this topic is patently absurd as people can relate to neither carbon nor – living in a paved world – footprints.
The next speaker was Carlo Ratti from Senseable City Lab at MIT. He highlighted how more and more aspects of our world and daily lives are closely related to data these days. Sensors, communication and data processing have become cheap and will become even cheaper. A lot of data are collected and increasingly used. Possibly to improve our lives [he didn’t touch the topic of how those data are mainly used to create profits which may be bad for our lives: to me it seems that the ‘bad’ guys put more effort into extracting useful information from the data]. He then presented a bunch of interesting projects their group made: Using communication data in Rome to visualise what people are doing and how they flow through the city. During Italy’s football world championship win and in everyday life. Apparently it’s hard to tell pedestrians and people in cars apart in Rome when all you know is the speed they’re moving at. A vision he presented was to create a bus system where the buses know when they are needed and appear; Nothing practical seems to have come out of that idea, though. Other data collections were the tracking of rubbish by putting extra electronics in it and drawing the results on a map; Sweet idea, but one wonders to which extent this revealed information beyond which kind of rubbish dumps and recycling facilities are where. Other projects involved ‘crowd-sourcing’, i.e. analysing pictures on flickr to find out where in Span spring is or where parties in Barcelona are. Possibly the most interesting info-graphic shown was a film with a map of Singapore, which was distorted according to the time you’d need to reach places. Nice show of rush hours. All in all, plenty of fun ideas in there, but they mostly didn’t seem to reveal much beyond the obvious.
Food queues in the following bread were so long that I settled for cake instead (yay!) and looked at the exhibition of student works in the basement. Besides hipster stuff like a fancy display for Twitter messages, I saw a system using that XBox infrared motion tracker to let people play virtual instruments. Unfortunately the software didn’t like me when I wanted to try it out. Another, spooky, project consisted of long flexible tubes in a dark room with lights at their end. It turned out some proximity detection was going on there and the tubes started moving a little and ‘looked’ at you with their lights when you approached them. Sweet.
After the lunch break, Alexander Lehmann spoke. He became an overnight YouTube star a few years back when he made a film taking the piss of the then running ridiculous
Du bist Terrorist and showing the image of a state suspecting all citizens as terrorists and thus being fully justified to terminate privacy and logging all the data they can. A good idea, executed so well that it became popular and then rocketed in popularity even more after people threatened to sue him, the poor design student, which made Alexander the star of the media. Nice if stories work out like that. He sketched how he works and stressed the difference between (static) graphics or text and working with video which, having a linear timeline, gives the creator great control over the pace of the elements the viewer focuses on. The debtris video by Information is Beautiful served as an example for that. As a bonus, his fame even got him a job doing satirical clips for a TV show.
The following speaker was Brendan Dawes from Manchester. He spoke about his fun projects, the importance of enriching data with a human touch –
data needs poetry – and pointed out plenty of curious and sweet projects like his analogue weather indicator, his love of laser cutters or ‘analysing’ films by making big posters using many of their frames [an idea that has both a charming geekery for being so technical taken off with sites like moviebarcode appearing]. The latter even got him into New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but I’m not really sure I can tell what the point of his talk was.
Speaker number five was Wesley Grubbs from Pitch Interactive in Madison, Wisconsin. His talk was the most interesting one of the day to me as he spoke about both sides of visualisation: going all the way from big data sets to appealing and insightful visualisations. In fact I may have seen some his works before as the programme said they were in the Science Express that toured Germany a while ago. He showed a few examples of his work and discussed the challenges in creating them. One was the difference between the funding of Obama’s and McCain’s election campaigns in 2008. All the official donations, 12 million of them, are public in the U.S. [great!], and with information about donors, their job, city and the amount of donation one can analyse and tell the (by now familiar) story that Obama got enough donations to buy the election but he did so by convincing many people to contribute a little rather than having a few huge donors contributing most of the money. Another story was about 311 calls – 311 apparently being the number you call in U.S. cities when there’s something non-dangerous you need help with, e.g. noisy neighbours or blocked driveways. For the hundred millionth call in New York they wanted to present the service, analysed the call records for a period of time and ended up with a diagram telling pretty much the life of the city by graphing the reasons for 311 calls throughout the day: When the ctiy tries and fails to sleep, when it sleeps, when people wake up, etc. A final example shown was a graph showing U.S. federal spending. Seeing it, it’s shocking – but not particularly surprising – that a huge chunk of the money is the defense budget. What turns this into a remarkable story, is to compare the fractions of the budget going into certain areas with the media coverage of the same areas. And there, a big disconnect becomes visible. One can understand that nobody wants to read about war all the time, but seeing that people appear to care a lot about education which gets a negligible fraction of the budget is sad.
After the next break – hmmm, ice cream! – Joshua Prince-Rasmus from REX architects in New York spoke. He put on a great show and had amazing projects to present. His point – which seems to be the working method of their office – being that architecture is ‘just’ another instance of turning information into design as well. After giving a short historical introduction, politely expressing his distaste for the practical outcomes of Bauhaus architectures and 1980s skyscrapers, he introduced their ‘method’ of working. It consists of a big first step of understanding the client’s needs. In particular, that step is not about how things are built or how they look. The result of that analysis, backed by data, is condensed into statements about the needs and goals of the project which the client signs – and only then architectural planning begins. [I suppose this kind of ‘method’ drives away ‘bad’ clients quite easily, so you’ll need some kind of reputation to get away with it.] The first example he gave and showed was the new public library in Seattle which looks a bit odd but the looks were derived from the varying needs of different parts of library work [I think the library also has a clever way of integrating DDC classification in the setup of everything, but that may be beyond the pure architecture and wasn’t mentioned in the talk which focused on the fact that libraries in the 20th century are at least as much about public services and people than they are about books]. The next example was the Dallas Theatre Center. They were in a shabby building and had become quite famous for their productions. Apparently because of the old building which nobody cared about so directors could be super flexible, have holes in the roof and whatever else they wanted. Thus the needs they determined from that lead to a building flexible for many different setups and taking that to an extreme where the theatre’s main area is an empty hall on ground level, most walls of which can be removed. The stage and seating areas can be moved where they should be within an hour from above and below. Sounds and looked very clever and refreshing to me. Another remarkable project was a development for Louisville university which was made for a site so crappy the university got it for free (between a concrete wall and a motorway, potentially flooded, consisting of three pieces). The building was meant to be rented out in part to pay for the bits the university wanted. And after analysing that problem to death, they came up with a solution. I find it fascinating when people think in such a structural way. I started wanting to work for them. Even more so when Prince-Rasmus said everybody starting to work there will cry at some stage because everybody goes on crashing their ideas while trying to find the best one.
The final speaker was Justin Manor from Boston. He’s into live video projects and showed a lot of the ‘Prime Numerics’ project they did during election campaigns in the U.K. and U.S.: Discussions were typed in as they happened (apparently a real challenge to keep up with the ridiculous speaking speed of British politicians) and then the words were analysed in many different ways, leading to all sorts of visualisations of things like word frequency, word and sentence length, pronoun usage and so on. All that packaged in slick looking animated text and graphs put onto the live television image. That’s pretty cool but also pretty useless as the data analysis done is quite ad-hoc and wouldn’t qualify as serious in any way – a fact that Manor also pointed out himself. So this presentation was mainly visually interesting but fell short on the ‘information’ part. What wasn’t so great was Manor trying to connect to the big topic of sustainability attached to the conference at the end. He just didn’t have anything significant to say on that, so that ended up being a bit weird.
And that was the conference for me. As I travelled on to Heidelberg, I had to miss the evening party and the short workshop sessions announced for Sunday (Wesley Grubbs said he’d give some insight in the data analysis techniques used, which sounded very interesting). Big thanks go to Scholz & Volkmer advertising agency for organising the event.
One topic which unfortunately wasn’t really discussed at the conference is that of truth. Sure, a few speakers implicitly referred to it (e.g. Alexander Lehmann making satirical films which are by definition about truth, or the lack thereof, in politics or Joshua Prince-Rasmus mentioning that they couldn’t really plan a ‘zero-carbon-footprint’ building which was supposed to be built 20km out of the city centre as things have to happen inside cities to keep them energetically efficient), but the actual point was not made: Visual information can easily lie.
Less blatantly: We are quite visual by nature and we are inclined to believe things we see. A graph or image just sticks more easily than a big table of numbers which we have to read, understand and possibly analyse. As a consequence it is easy to create visualisations which are suggestive in the wrong way. Which means that creating such graphics brings great power and great responsibility with it. Both because people want to mislead the recipient of the information (I am sure all the advertising people who were there would have a thing or two to tell about that) and because they accidentally mislead due to wrong analysis or not thinking the perception of the visualisation through sufficiently.
Even simple, quotidian visualisations like bar graphs in newspapers are routinely ‘adjusted’ for display by cutting off their axes. When doing this there must be a line somewhere between cutting off the axes in a way that significant information becomes more visible and cutting off the axes in a way that makes a trivial change look dramatic. Where exactly that line is crossed will depend on the data used, the facts they describe, the people the graph is made for and the agenda of the people creating the graph. To me this issue looks like a pretty slippery slope. One that would be interesting to discuss. For the benefit of both the people who want to create ‘correct’ graphs and those who want to mislead.
Sunday, March 13, 2011
This year I finally managed to go for a skiing holiday again. After my first grown-up skiing trip five years ago went surprisingly well, another trip with a different group of friends had been planned for a while and happened now. We once more went to the Dolomites in Südtirol, Italy. Not only did I enjoy my previous trip there, they also have the massive Dolomiti Superski ski area which gives you more pistes than you could hope to use. According to my friends those pistes may be a bit too easy on average for long-time skiers, but the variety and the beauty of the region makes up for it.
In addition to that, it’s super-easy to get along in the region as pretty much everyone seems to speak Italian, German, which are local languages, as well as English for the tourists. People seem very friendly and many of them strive to take good care of their guests and make your stay enjoyable. Things are expensive – which seems to be ‘necessary’ for ski holidays, but not as pricey as in Austria or Switzerland. Even a lunch in a refugio on the pistes can be reasonably good and with good service and not just a plain rip-off if you are lucky which may be one in three or so.
I took a ski course once again, and our maestro, Hans, super-patiently – possibly even a bit too patiently – tried to bring us around the curves and up-to-speed on the pistes, so we could go on some longer trip the last day of the course and I could comfortably do the ‘Sella Ronda’ ride around the Sella group with my friends on the last day of our stay – no panic required. Naturally, now I want more…
Going in March seemed a bit risky at first as the weather has been quite warm recently, so we wondered how the snow situation would be. We learned that, yes, it had been warm in Italy as well – and indeed it was lovely and sunny throughout our stay –, but they make an effort to create enough ‘artificial’ snow early in winter to last all the way to the end of April. That, together with all the lifts they have shows how much business/dedication is going on there and makes you wonder how much of the landscape they destroyed by having such extensive skiing facilities (even though friends said the region is beautiful for hiking in summer as well). The whole lift thing is fascinating and I’ll have to read up a bit on how they make the steel ropes, how much power is used and so on. Probably Wikipedia will help; perhaps companies like Leitner and Doppelmayr who seem to build most of the lifts have interesting sites as well, including this script on ropeway technology with more information that you wanted. A small Schlepplift seems to use 60kW of power, a larger and longer chairlift 250kW.
A topic that crossed our way a few times was the question of fascism. Incidentally, Kulturzeit ran a report on right wing Italian movements during our stay. Accidentally my friend spotted a presumably ‘fun’ wine bottle with Hitler’s face on in the pizzeria next door – is this just a sign that people are stupid in the way people reading The Sun or Bild are? or is this worse? – And, well, amusingly the Dolomiti Superski Logo could be considered being a bit too close to the SS-Logo for comfort.