‘Network Visualization in an Age of Interconnectedness’ – Manuel Lima Talks at BBH

A talk on Data Visualization by Manuel Lima, courtesy of @madebymany and @bbhlondon, 25th August 2009.

“I am a Functionalist Troubled by Aesthetics” – Manuel Lima, quoting Wim Crouwel

Ostensibly Manuel talks about representing data, visually: at a more abstract level, he is talking about the transmission of information across a continuum from raw data, to a global, understandable ‘information’, to a communicable ‘knowledge’, and finally to a personal ‘wisdom’. This process remains contingent on context, and on the relationship between production and consumption of data.

Firstly, Manuel spoke of the ways in which information has been communicated throughout the ages – considering cave drawings, moveable type, and of course, language. Contextualising his topic, he moved on to what he referred to as a ‘Visualization Outburst’ – brought about by five key factors.

1. The capacity of digital to store information.
References to the exponentiality of digital growth and ‘Kryder’s Law‘ were made, examples being the capacity of the iPod to store 160GB of information in 2009 compared to the benchmark model in 2001 boasting 5GB capacity. Kryder’s Rule states that the capacity of information storage will double every 18 months, and this has been proven in several cases: the iPod being one, and to name another, Manuel suggests that a laptop computer will have a commodity drive capacity of 1 Petabyte (1 million Gigabytes) by 2030.

2. Openness of Datasets
In sharing data (eg IBM’s Many Eyes), and allowing others to access your data, as well as being able to aggregate multiple users data (eg through APIs), we have more data to work with: and more is better – although perhaps more complex. An onus on transparency and openness is championed in many contexts, and the manipulation of data by third parties can be mutually beneficial – as well as forward facing.

3. Social Networks

The interconnectedness of individuals in an online capacity has a huge impact on information sharing. Not only who is connected to who by eg a LinkedIn profile, six degrees of separation and so on: but also through topics of interest, communal activity, music tastes and so on. Further, the aggregation of user data by host platforms such as Twitter, and the APIs they provide, are sources for data viz in their own right. Tag clouds used within the flickr platform were early and benchmark examples of democratized data visualization.

4. Democratization of Tools

Further exploring the democratization of data, we are shown examples of software such as processing and flash facilitating UG data viz. Data visualization is no longer confined to academic field, but can become part of a wider conversation of users and resultantly is allowed to form the syntax/discourse/language for communicating data across disparate platforms.

5. Mainstream Media
Along a similar line, Manuel talks about ‘vernacular visualizations’, and a point is raised from the audience about how whilst openness of data-sets drives data visualization, similarly the dissemination and adoption of data visualization drives the opening of data-sets. Manuel rebuts along the line that sharing information is about an exploration; a journey – a return to the link between producer and consumer – and that the objective is to provide a greater explanation; a function of the data, rather than visualization being an end in itself. I shall return to this point later.

Visual Complexity: We need to make a transition from Tools of Curiosity to Tools of Functionality”

California NanoSystems Institute

California NanoSystems Institute

Secondly, Lima moved on to discuss his own project, Visual Complexity. Here he moved through several fascinating examples of how data viz is being used, with an emphasis on plurality: in working towards a ‘common language’. His work and curation encompasses a variety of fields, where the data he has collected might be from biology, social networks, business, IT, music, politics or astrophysics. The point in many ways is that the subject matter, doesn’t matter: the interpretation of the viz is subjective and entirely within the control of the user. The job of data viz is to make that interpretation clearer or more valuable than through other methods.

Within this section he gave several examples, the highlights of which for me were a project on GPS drawing, whereby children would walk around a large open space and physically ‘draw’ a simple object, the example being an elephant’s head. They could then map this data using GPS technology onto the terrain which they had navigated, and remove sufficient data to create a real-life, mass-participant ‘art attack’. Neil Buchanan would have been proud. Other examples included linking music tastes across a social network and so on, before Manuel moved on to more hardcore applications of this hybrid of design and technology (‘a new science’). He alludes to several examples of visual representation of terrorist networks, identifying key players over a temporal space, as well as analysis of the demise of Enron, a stab at the ‘fat cats’ of the US and many more – all of which are available on his blog.

“Aesthetics should be a Consequence, not a Goal of Data Visualization”…

Tracing the Visitors Eye

Tracing the Visitor's Eye

My personal favourite combined UGC in the form of geotagged flickr photographs, geographic data and temporal data to create a map of the paths people take around a space: in this case, the city of Barcelona. Basically, the data aggregated user photos of landmarks in the city, and pitched them against the time they were taken, to establish the routes people created: “Tracing the Visitor’s Eye”. This data was then overlaid on a map of Barcelona to show the traces people had taken, with stunning informational and aesthetic effect.

“Time is a Very Difficult thing to Map”

The final part of the talk focused on network visualization, and how this translates into every day life. Examples were given of visual representation methods, as well as interactive exploration techniques, ranging from radial convergence models and radial centralized networks, through to multi-sensory installations such as a Californian project involving the representation of nodes in both colour and sound, across a three storey building.

So. What has all this got to do with me? Well, to be honest, I wasn’t 100% sure, but all I knew was: it looked fucking cool, and seemed to serve a real functional, valuable purpose in today’s data rich and time poor society. However, I had an inkling that my work looking at creativity within systems, and as processes, would relate – especially in terms of how best to represent this visually. In his final section, Manuel alluded to the complexity of networks, considered from different levels of aggregation, and how data viz can serve to simplify models of complex phenomena.

He splits the system up into three levels: the macro level, or ‘system level’, where data serves to indicate patterns; a relationship level, where connectivity between nodes is of focus, and the micro level, looking at individual nodes. I map this on to my own work, discovering parallels within a creative system of Culture as System (Macro); Organizational (Relationship) and Individual (Node) level aggregation.

Further, his ideas on time, and how this is difficult to map were very interesting. I attempt to map the development of creative projects over time both through language; and diagrammatically. Lima uses an example of a temporal based network visualization, showing schoolchildren interacting with a teacher, and one another, over time. It blows my mind, despite its relative aesthetic modesty. But his point here is that nodes within this system can and should be represented intelligently: incorporating temporal factors, factors of relevance (eg proximity to other nodes: there’s no need to see the whole system, actually, only what’s relevant), and factors of simplicity.

He closes with an allusion to a ‘Universal structure’ – which he translates as matching images of neurons in a mouse’s brain to the Millennium Structure, developed recently to represent the universe-as accurately as we can, using a self contained data set of 25TB.

He jokes at the juxtaposition, but similarity, between one of the smallest things you can see, and one of the biggest things you can think of: but to me, and probably to many who were there, the message was clearer: working towards data visualizations or representations of the monolith of data we face is not an end in itself, but a stepping stone in creating a multi-disciplinary and cross discourse platform for communicating information: be they ideas, data-sets, evolutionary systems or, indeed, Facebook friends.

Manuel Lima | Visual Complexity from on Vimeo.

Anyone who was at the event, please contribute to my thoughts. Manuel: keep up the good work.


Manuel Lima & Visual Complexity

I’m off to a talk tomorrow by Manuel Lima, a visual complexity/information visualization aficionado who recently spoke at TED. Organized by Many to Many, and hosted at BBH, they say:

“Manuel will be re-presenting his TED talk on understanding complex interconnectedness and highlights from a range of fascinating information visualization projects”

Some examples from his site and blog, Visual Complexity, are shown below.

Information Visualizations, as complied by Manuel Lima

How it would be if a building was dreaming” (Above) The conception of this project consistently derives from its underlying architecture – the theoretic conception and visual pattern of the Hamburg Kunsthalle. The Basic idea of narration was to dissolve and break through the strict architecture of O. M. Ungers “Galerie der Gegenwart”. Resultant permeabilty of the solid facade uncovers different interpretations of conception, geometry and aesthetics expressed through graphics and movement. A situation of reflexivity evolves – describing the constitution and spacious perception of this location by means of the building itself.

Hopefully this will relate to my PhD work in a number of ways: firstly he is talking predominantly about networks of information, and how these may or may not be organized, similar to the network theory of creativity I am developing, building on the work of Csikszentmihalyi. The overlap between design/aesthetics, and organizational theory are fascinating. Further, TED notes on his talk say:

“Networks are omnipresent. They’re in brains, in cells, power grids, ecosystems. This is why it is important to try to map networks. He studied Warren Weaver, who wrote on complexity, and “problems of simplicity.” There are problems of simplicity, problems of disorganized complexity, and problems of organized complexity”.

Hopefully, it’s gonna be good. I shall blog about my findings in next couple of days. Looking forwards to it.

Four Social Media Conversations

This is a very pretty bit of diagramming: The conversation prism, by Brian Solis and JESS3.

The converstation prism

What is shown here is simply different verticals and environments in which social media conversation takes place: its pretty small, so you cant really see, but you can download the image bigger on their homepage – or buy a poster of it for $20 if you have really poor eyesight. Point is, I’m doing some consultancy work around adapting digital strategy within these verticals at the moment, and have a couple of rising areas of interest. Its not one of those gay lists of ‘7 KEY FACTORS FOR SOCIAL MEDIA SUCCESS” – its just quite interesting.

1. Meta Conversations
Aggregation of audience is not necessarily about demographics but users within a vertical. So, if twitter communications link to twitter related content, they are more likely to be engaged with. Twitter is about linking cool stuff on the web. The closer you remain to these meta-conversations the more likely your stuff will spread (eg the more likely people are to retweet: engagement is another measure, not just clickthrough).

Picture 14

A good example is this case study of VW…they use twitter API based around your recent tweets to determine which VW is best for you. Whilst this might not actually be the case, it is certainly interesting and relevant to the the activities you are already involved in (eg twitter, profiling, ‘cool web stuff’). So, maybe ‘remarkable’ content sits between following the link and having to visit a more corporate homepage. Thus whilst clickthrough is desirable it is not the only measure: content drives engagement as a result of its proximity to vertical meta-conversations/norms/interests (eg innovative use of API).

2.Content in Context

My formula is Content in Context + Integration and Connection Reciprocality. The challenge may be to create content, pushed into contexts where it makes sense, that integrates with the same content in other verticals AND different content within that vertical. It is vital to achieve an optimum degree of permeability within the social media experience. Trade off between a brand homepage ‘hub’, the controlled, branded content within verticals (with gentle pointers to desired actions), and the uncontrolled, UGC social world. “What connects people to people to your brand is the creation and development of a collective purpose and meaning through the mutual exchange of ideas. Let us not limit our creativity by limiting our perspective on language or expression in the context of the brand” – @razorfish.

3. Making a Cup of Tea
People always forget individual difference. this is what Chris Hackley is often talking about. People’s context is influenced by multiple variables – what they’re doing at the time, where they are, who they are…whether upon linking through to some content they nip off to make a cup of tea; whether they have 20 minutes and are bored and resultantly play your online game for 30 minutes without really paying any attention. The only means of combating this would be to ensure you engage at a number of different points, to increase your chances of developing an interaction.

Don't be a Brand Slag

Don't be a Brand Slag

The guy I’m working with at the moment says ‘people might be ready to kiss the brand, but not ready to fuck just yet’. I think this is a bit crude, but it makes sense; the courting analogy, and always has done. Tom Himpe says ‘Brands tend to lack the necessary skills for this seduction ritual. They are used to revealing everything about themselves at the very first encounter, eager to get customers into the sack as soon as possible. But today’s savvy audience is reluctant to allow themselves to be seduced so quickly and openly. They prefer brands to seduce them little by little, revealing their messages slowly, intelligently and flirtatiously’.

Picture 15

4. Remark Upon Me!
At the end of the day, you talk about stuff that’s remarkable: that makes you remark upon it. Social media is no different – people converse around stuff that is remarkable, and it is this stuff that gets shared and discussed and engaged with. So there you go, planners and brand strategists of the world, there’s your creative brief written: Create something remarkable that people will share and remark upon. Job done.

One Awesome Plastic Bag

My Luxembourgish friend showed me this today. I love how the old woman looks like she’s carrying a crate of beer.

plastic bag

And wouldn’t it be great if the trend continues whereby innovative design encourages the re-use of plastic bags? Maybe if I had one of these guys I’d remember to take it to the shops with me more often…

Delivering Creativity Notes: Projectization

The projectized nature of advertising work as noted by Grabher (2003) is characterised by multiple concurrent projects and their management, encompassing the relevant plugging in and out of resources, time, money and people. An agency is typically working on several projects simultaneously. Resource is distributed across the workload accordingly, usually on an ad hoc basis. In this way the creative delivery process extends horizontally as well as vertically through the value chain where individuals interacting within an organisation are working on different projects at different stages of completion at different times.

Projectization Diagram

Agencies should look for synergies accross relationships, and learn from each specific instance (eg a chemistry meeting with a new client) how to handle relationships generally. In this way, they cement their position within a network of agencies, suppliers, cultures and domains, and the creative delivery process goes full circle, with implications for management at an individual, organisational, and system level. Creative products in advertising are developed iteratively through the network of agencies involved, the relationship with the client,
and the system in which these processes are taking place. Issues are still found at the network level relating to

Who is responsible for the ‘creative idea’, who takes the lead?

Cultural and Knowledge Boundaries
Must be negotiated through carefully managing boundary objects in order to communicate amongst specialised groups.

Managing Expectations
More stakeholders means more directions in which the direction of the project can be pulled.

Integrating the Delivery Process
Individuals and organisations need to overlap in their development of creative products, so that the process can work itbenefi t from synergies from multiple perspectives.

I Want One of THESE Tables