data as art

Kieran gave a workshop in Chicago last week.  His insights were, of course, engaging.  But meeting with some students afterward, their first comments had to do with how he presented his data.  He got mad props for great use of color, movement and animation, and generally for wringing clarity out of empirical messiness.

Experiments with data presentation have been scarce in orgtheory.  Jason Owen-Smith, Woody Powell and colleagues have produced some intriguing movies showing network formation of biotechnology in San Diego using pajek.  But cool as those movies are, they don’t quite reach the visual impact of, say, the visualization of shipping traffic or taxi-cab movements in London as captured by the BBC program “Britain from Above.”  Or, of the neato interactive graphic that appeared in the New York Times last year, showing the ebb and flow of box office receipts reaching back to 1986.  (These and a few others were highlighted by the folks at as among the best of 2008. is another place to go looking for data as visual art.  Btw, technical info on how that NYTimes graphic was produced is found in this paper).

Geographic data is particularly amenable to artistic renditions, often with menacing overtones: for instance, visualization of Walmart spreading like a disease, or Slate’s recent look at the deterioration of the US economy.

Visualizations have been around for a while.  But might the future lay in audio?  For instance, re:sound, a program on Chicago Public Radio, had a story this afternoon recounting the lives of refugees who had migrated to the US.  Good story.  But this sound installation, called Chorus of Refuge, got my attention (scroll down and hit play on the audiofile called AfghanistanBurmaBurundiIraqSomaliaSudan).  It takes the voices from the refugee interviews, modulates them both rhythmically and tonally and then coordinates them into a performance.  As the presenter on the radio show put it, “the details of the refugees’ stories are different, but the arc is the same”.  Sounds like logitudinal data analysis to me.  I think its pretty stunning.  It reminds me also of “Lost Tribes of NYC” which superimposes the voices of New Yorkers on to inanimate objects around the city (watch that video to the end).

Written by seansafford

May 16, 2009 at 7:37 pm

4 Responses

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  1. In only marginally related news, Wolfram Alpha is live. It’s a data search engine that presents the results in a variety of often useful ways. I haven’t played with it enough to have a real review, but it might be of interest for both aesthetic and practical reasons.


    Dan Hirschman

    May 16, 2009 at 7:52 pm

  2. I love the beautiful visualization of research. However, the research effort does not encourage beautiful visualization given that the final product (a paper) really doesn’t allow it (in a meaningful way — though I think some journals are innovating in this space as well). I’m also finding that the level of technical/programming skill needed to create visualizations is very high — but, I suppose that’s what collaboration is for.

    (That BBC footage is very cool!)



    May 16, 2009 at 8:56 pm

  3. Hans Rosling’s Gapminder is of course another great example of how to visualize statistics.


    Henrik Berglund

    May 17, 2009 at 2:57 pm

  4. Ah right, I was reminded of this earlier post by Fabio on Mark Lombardi (I’m sure there are others too, but I think this stuff is great)…



    May 17, 2009 at 9:28 pm

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