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

The ‘Flow’ of the Web 2.0 – Cyberspace Revisited?

In a talk at the Web 2.0 Expo Danah Boyd provides a nice overview on how social media could shape the way of experiencing the ‘flow’ of information on the Web. The speech is published on her blog and reading it something came to my mind which keeps puzzling me since. Boyd basically describes the shift from broadcast media to networked media. The goal for us then seems to be in achieving a state in which one is actively embedded into a constant flow of information. Further, tools should be used to distill the relevant parts of this information stream. The summary she provides gives comprehensive overview on the goods and bads we can expect of the described development. Four core issues are pointed out that arise from the increasing use of social media and personalized media streams. Towards the end she calls for an active participation in this process and also to help people to reach this state. What keeps puzzling me, however, is the somewhat utopian tone of her address that reminds me of the old cyberspace days.

“[…] to live in a world where information is everywhere. To be peripherally aware of information as it flows by, grabbing it at the right moment when it is most relevant and valuable, entertaining or insightful. Living with, in, and around information.”

she writes. For my sense her words are strikingly close to what William Gibson writes about cyberspace in Neuromancer.

“A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts […] A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”

There are obvious differences of course. The ‘flow’ of the Web 2.0 is certainly not a hallucination and not described like that. However, it seems rather abstract to me. The idea of information everywhere and a peripheral awareness brings one close to Mark Weiser’s idea of ubiquitous computing, so rather the opposite of the cyberspace’s virtual reality, but not necessarily less utopian. The general tone of being within the stream of information, being surrounded by it and hence liberated from the constraints of the centralized broadcasting model nevertheless leaves me with an uncanny feeling. It leaves me uneasy because it seems too passive from the user’s perspective. Just plug in to the ‘flow’ and dive into another realm?

Filed under: Conference, Cyberspace, Web 2.0