Notes on Media

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Just another weblog. Lasse Bo Timmermann.

The Power of Data

Sample Image of Data Driven Newspaper
An increasing amount of free data sets is becoming available through the Web every day. A talk by Alex Lundry on Chart Wars: The Political Power of Data Visualization shows how important the presentation of a data set is in order to achieve certain goals. While he is mainly concerned with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways of visualization the larger scope is widened in a post by Nat Torkington on Rethinking Open Data in which he points to the fact that most data sets made available by governments are not being used sufficiently for different reasons. He sees the problems in the indifferent goals of the people working with the data and the resulting difficulties for its uses. For future projects Torkington conludes that it is neccesary to

[…] build a tight feedback loop between those who want data and those who can provide it, to create an environment where the data users can support each other, and to make it easier to assess the value created by government-released open data.

It is thus neccessary to embed the open data sets into the existing media environment rather than trying to change the things entirely in a single step. One possible way to engage users with data is the present it aesthetically. Blogs like Information is Beautiful, Information Aesthetics or Databeautiful provide great collection of the possible outcomes of such work. The question, however, remains to which extend they also really serve as feedback loops as they only aim at the aesthetic representation of more or less useful data. The main issue hence seems to be in the possibility to engage with the data and repurpose it for one’s own means. What is therefore needed is the creation of tools that allow ‘real people’, as Nat Torkington writes, to access and use open data. Only if this is achieved, open data can serve the means that potentially make it a great thing. While already announced in April 2009 Google’s public data and its ingreation into search results might provide a first step in this direction. Arguably the visualization of open data within search results provides an example for the integration of such data into a Web environment experienced by most people. While the number of data available like this, as well as the interaction with it remain at a very basic level they appear in a ‘natural’ environment. I think that a further integration of data like this could be the next step in getting people in touch with open data. Thinking this further the data could make it from the browser into augmented reality environments. With augmented reality somehow in-between I finally want to point to a project situated in the offline world. Based on the data from data.gov.uk the newspaper club created the prototype for a data driven newspaper that is aimed at people moving into a new area. It is thought to trigger an active engagement with the publicly available data for one’s local environment.

Despite the promising approaches mentioned above there’s a lot of work to do, as suggested in Nat Torkington’s article. The mere availability of data doesn’t change anything and thus what matters is representation and engagement.

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Filed under: Data, Politics, Visualization, Web 2.0

Urban Screens – Visualizing the Rhythms of the City

Visiting the urbancreens conference in Amsterdam provided some interesting insights into the connections between urban culture, architecture and media spaces. Most interesting in view was Martijn de Waals’s talk on Improving Cultural Public Spaces. In his talk he was concerned with urban screens, mobile media and urban culture. In his terms the city is a space full of strangers in which we only know a small fraction personally. He asks how we shape and express our own identity in these spaces and how we relate ourselve to others?
real-time rome visualization taken from http://senseable.mit.edu/realtimerome/
De Waal then turned to the analysis of different urban practices that are fundamentally reshaped by the use of mobile communication devices. The space of the city can hence serve as a space for political debate and the encounter of different people and perspectives. The cultural public space offers a bodily experience of collective rhythms, performances and habits. Wearing particular clothes and visiting shared places leads of the creation of patterns. Just by being in space a person creates a specific urban space. Over time the same persons encounter each other frequently which can build a sense of trust, similarly to social networks and recommendation systems. The sense of belonging to a collective can therefore be argued to be based on a shared space. This sense of belonging can further lead to what de Waal terms dwelling and that describes the process of making oneself at home in a city. In his talk de Waal provides a comeplling way of describing urban life in the time of the increasing use of mobile communication devices (and their screens). I really enjoyed his descriptions of actively formed and constantly re-formed spaces in an urban environment.
The examples introduced show current projects that support the creation of the spaces described by de Waal. In a project called citysense one can download a cell phone application in order to find people and places with similar interests based on one’s own habits. The inhabitants of the city are placed into different tribes, hence pointing towards a future possibility to form and bring together dynamic groups of people. A second example introduced was MIT’s SENSEable City Lab which includes several different projects. In one of the featured projects the cell phone data is combined with public transportation data to provide a real-time visualization of the collective rhythms and flows of the city of Rome (see visualization above).
Plastic Container of Liquid Soap in New York
Obviously most of the current projects are more aesthetic experiments pointing towards a certain direction. If, however, the concepts described by de Waal and realized in many different projects can be lifted to the next level the will most likely have a tremendous impact. Imagine local political discussion based on these technologies. New forms of collaborative action and new ways of living together might become available. Projects like Trash|Track (see visualization above) can help to create an awareness of spatial relations. If we can manage to solve issues of privacy that are arising from the collection of large amounts of data, which is certainly not an easy task, the metaphors introduced by de Waal point to an interesting future.

Filed under: Amsterdam, Architecture, Conference, Mobile, Visualization