Enrich the EYES and mind with data

30 10 2009

When you hear the terms data visualizations, what comes to mind? To me, at least when I first was exposed to these terms at the beginning of the interactive media masters program that I am currently enrolled; I took them to mean data that was apparent. Pretty basic, I know. However, I have begun to see data visualization differently. Thanks in part to a lecture I watched with other interactive media students this morning, I can further expand my interpretation of what data visualizations really are.

Aaron Koblin is a master in working otherwise static data in useful, engaging, interesting products. As a current member of the Google Creative Labs team, he gets paid to apply his terrific skills on a daily basis. One example of his work that really stood out in my mind was his visualization of airplane flight data compiled by the United States Federal Aviation Administration. Koblin was able to make a visually enticing depiction of all the flights that traveled through United States airspace in a 24-hour period. Furthermore, to demonstrate the power of data when visualized, he did not even make a map of the United States. Instead, he let the data do the work and show the patterns that emerged from the flight paths. As a result, a general outline of the country became apparent as, guess what, planes need airports to begin and end their journeys and they tend to be on land.

Relating to all of his works, Koblin shared a critical insight during the lecture. He stated that by looking at something ordinary, again think static data, in a new way can produce an extraordinary experience. I could not agree with him more on this. Think of it as a light bulb suddenly illuminating. It can help people realize things about material they thought they already knew. This awakening of sorts can produce some dramatic changes in a business sense by gaining a new perspective, a new interpretation on product use patterns, economic factors etc.

There exist numerous examples of sound being used in visualizations, which is very interesting. One example shown during the lecture was a crowd-sourced composition of sound bits that pieced together formed a musical song. Imagine taking many, many strangers single second voice clips and melding them together to produce a musical piece that takes on a very unique sound. That is what Koblin did thanks to the Internet, microphones and curious online users. Finally, a sound visualization playing in the background on my computer while I type this is demonstrating the sound variations of the song “Rest My Chemistry” by Interpol.

Interpol – Rest My Chemistry Video from Aaron on Vimeo.

Here, the visual cues explode, disappear, vary in size and color based upon the lyrical and tonal composition of the song. While watching the piece, it almost becomes a mystery of sorts as you try to guess what visual elements will pop through the next stanza of the song.

Bottom line is this; data visualizations are cool and useful. They can capture an audience’s attention while demonstrating new ideas or building new connections from old ideas based around data. As more of the world’s population spends greater time online, I expect people like Aaron Koblin will play an ever-increasing role in how we understand the world around us.