A Wealth Of (Visual) Information

In the three minutes and nine seconds of Scott Manley’s YouTube video, each asteroid discovery over the past 30 years emerges as a bright shock of color on a mostly black background, a map of the earth’s circulation in our solar system. Over the first decade (or minute and a half of the video) relatively little happens; a tiny blue earth revolves around a larger yellow sun every six seconds, white asteroids stipple the “universe” behind it. By two-and-a-half minutes, the entire background is swathed in green and yellow, red and white–it’s like a Venn diagram on steroids.

It’s not just a pretty picture, either. Each asteroid is plotted using actual documented discovery dates taken from the Minor Planet Center and the Lowell Observatory, major astronomy centers that host large sets of publicly available data. Manley’s foray into the world of data visualization is one of many other projects cropping up on the Web that bring innovative approaches to the depiction of normally tabular data sets, giving an aesthetic appeal to an otherwise unattractive body of information.

“There’s more data out there than a person can manage,” says Eric Rodenbeck, founder and CEO of Stamen Design, a Bay Area studio that specializes in digital visualization. “Suddenly you’re at the computer and you have 15,000 messages, and you don’t know what to do with them.” Studios like Stamen solve the problem of having too much information and not knowing what to do with it.

In Pictures: 10 Coolest Uses Of Data Visualization

Rodenbeck and the team at Stamen used the wealth of information provided by DataSF.org (a site hosted by the city and county of San Francisco), Craigslist.org and other public resources to create an online interactive data map of one of the Bay Area’s more interesting and “colorful” districts, the Tenderloin. The maps highlight everything from how many trees populate the Tenderloin (not very many) to how many narcotics arrests occur (quite a bit more than there are trees). Josette Melchor, executive director at Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, says the “Tenderloin Dynamic” project uses all of this freely available information to raise “social consciousness through digital culture.”

Says Rodenbeck: “The widespread availability of data has crossed over into social media and digital culture. It’s moved out of the landscape of academics and researchers. Apple made aesthetics important. Google made mapping important. We’ve moved into the realm of pop culture.

Indeed, the masses seemed to have taken it up; Manley’s video reached over 500,000 pageviews in six days, ending up at No. 66 on YouTube’s “Most Viewed” videos channel for the week. And not to be outdone by the armchair YouTube user, pop culture icons are responding in kind. Most recently, high-profile Canadian indie rockers The Arcade Fire have teamed up with Google Chrome to produce “The Wilderness Downtown,” an interactive Web-produced music video. After the user is prompted for his or her address, the Google Maps API fetches and incorporates dynamic maps and street view data of the user’s hometown into the animated content of the video itself. The result is brilliant, and the viewer remains engaged.

“We’re talking about interactive knowledge, a haptic knowledge,” says Rodenbeck. “You’re actually able to create physical experiences out of these data relationships. It’s not just another PDF read only by policy wonks.”

Still, this seemingly endless digital buffet might not be an entirely good thing. Continuous digital input stimulation could be depriving the brain of precious downtime in which memories of experiences can be more permanently stored, according to a New York Times article that reported on a new University of California, San Francisco, study.