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June 22 2012

Visualization of the Week: The story behind the U.S. power grid

Visualizations and promo videos from the PBS series "America Revealed" were passed around this week, and it's easy to see why they caught on. Maps like these are fascinating.

Those pictures are impressive, but what drew me in was the mix of visuals and context that you see within episodes of the TV series. So often we're presented with visuals or a story. But if visualizations are meant to do more than paint pretty pictures, we need the "and" — data and a story, a visualization and its context. This is why Hans Rosling's approach is so compelling.

With that in mind, this week's visualization is a segment from the "Electric Nation" episode of "America Revealed" that illustrates — and explains — the development, use and fragility of the United States' electric power grid. The segment is below and you can find the full 53-minute episode available for free here. Other episodes in the series are posted here.

(Note: If the embedded video doesn't jump to the electric grid segment, scrub to the 4:34 mark. The segment runs until 8:39. Watch for the grid maps and the illustration of the 2003 Northeast blackout.).

Found a great visualization? Tell us about it

This post is part of an ongoing series exploring visualizations. We're always looking for leads, so please drop a line if there's a visualization you think we should know about.

Strata Conference + Hadoop World — The O'Reilly Strata Conference, being held Oct. 23-25 in New York City, explores the changes brought to technology and business by big data, data science, and pervasive computing. This year, Strata has joined forces with Hadoop World.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

More Visualizations:

June 15 2012

Top Stories: June 11-15, 2012

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

A reduced but important future for desktop computing
Josh Marinacci says most people will rely on mobile devices to handle their computing needs, but a select and small group of power users will continue to use desktop machines.

Big ethics for big data
"Ethics of Big Data" authors Kord Davis and Doug Patterson explore ownership, anonymization, privacy, and ways to evaluate and establish ethical data practices within an organization.

Stories over spreadsheets
Imagine a future where clear language supplants spreadsheets. In a recent interview, Narrative Science CTO Kris Hammond explained how we might get there.

Data in use from public health to personal fitness
Releasing public data can't fix the health care system by itself, but it provides tools as well as a model for data sharing.

What is DevOps?
NoOps, DevOps — no matter what you call it, operations won't go away. Ops experts and development teams will jointly evolve to meet the challenges of delivering reliable software to customers.

Velocity 2012: Web Operations & Performance — The smartest minds in web operations and performance are coming together for the Velocity Conference, being held June 25-27 in Santa Clara, Calif. Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20.

March 28 2012

The Reading Glove engages senses and objects to tell a story

I encountered Karen Tanenbaum (@ktanenbaum) through friends over on the Make side of O'Reilly Media. Thinking she might be a potential speaker for an upcoming edition of our Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, I contacted her for more information about the cool stuff she's working on, particularly her Reading Glove project.

"The Reading Glove is a collaboration between myself and my husband, Josh Tanenbaum," said Karen. "I have an interest in adaptive and intelligent systems, his research looks at storytelling and video games, and we both like to explore alternative interfaces: tangible, wearable, and ubiquitous computing environments."

Read more about the Glove project as well as Karen's take on design education, Steampunk culture and the Maker movement in the interview below.

How did the Reading Glove come about and what are your goals for the project?

Karen Tanenbaum: We wanted to see what happened when we gave people a story that was embedded on real, physical objects that could be played with and moved around. Our original vision was an entire room that told a story when you explored it, responding to objects you touched or moved via light and sound responses — sort of like a haunted house, but intended to tell a specific narrative rather than just be spooky. That was outside the scope and the budget of our dissertation work, so the Reading Glove was our first, more constrained exploration of that space.

Recommender, objects, and glove
Recommender, objects, and glove.

We also wanted to explore wearable technology with the glove; the goal there was to invoke the idea of "psychometry," or the psychic power of object reading. When you pick up the objects, you hear the echoes of the past, what these objects experienced, and then you use this power to piece the story back together. I developed a guidance system that helped to navigate the non-linear narrative, adding an adaptive or intelligent component to the experience. We've gotten some really interesting results out of it, such as how people talk about a system that has intelligent components, how much they anthropomorphize it and how accurate their estimates of its "intelligence" are.

What role does data play in the project?

Karen Tanenbaum: We collected a ton of data for this project, and I've spent the last year trying to sort through it and make sense of it. It's a real challenge with these kinds of novel systems to figure out what the most important thing is and to see how to correlate all these things together: how many objects they picked up, in what sequence, whether they interrupted pieces, whether or not they followed the system's recommendations, etc.

The focus of my analysis was on how people talked about the system and their use of it, particularly the notion of "control" and "choice." People would say that they really liked the freedom to choose any object and control how the story went, but would also say that since they never knew what story fragment they were going to get when they picked an object, they wished they had more control. It's interesting how people use technology and feel like they are, or are not, in control of it.

There's a problem with any simple measure of novel technology, which is that people in general tend to respond positively toward something new, especially if they know they are talking to the person who designed and built it. It's hard to ask someone "Did you like X?" when X is a new experience, like wearing a glove and picking up objects to hear a story. Of course, they're going to say "yes" because they don't have much to compare it to and because it is a fun thing to do. But there are innumerable design decisions that go into the whole experience, and it's hard to disentangle them to see where a different choice might have led to a better experience. That's why I think richer, more qualitative data is important to the field. It gets you beyond "I liked it, I thought it was easy to use, etc.," and you see what aspects of the experience people are really responding to, or what was actually frustrating them but which they didn't mention in the yes/no survey questions.

Reading Glove diagram
Reading Glove data diagram.

As well as being a PhD candidate, you teach interaction design at the university level. What trends are you seeing in design and technology education?

Karen Tanenbaum: I've taught interaction design at an art and design school and within a research university, and they are very different experiences. The art and design students were much more wary of the technology, but they had great intuition on how to use it to express their points of view. The students at the big university were more naturally technology-seeking, but they had to be pushed to really explore what it meant to say something with the technology. You really want the blend of both of those things: the technological expertise and the desire and ability to express something via technology rather than simply use it. I teach Processing to as many people as I can — basic coding is an incredibly beneficial skill for people in all fields to learn. There are tools to help simplify and automate a lot of the routines of everyone's work if you know how to write some basic code or search string parameters.

The other side of the coin, which I've had less opportunity to teach directly, is developing a critical stance toward technology. Programming and technical skills are really important, but so are critical thinking and reflective analysis. I don't believe technology is a neutral force; it is embedded and intertwined with a host of other cultural and societal forces, and we have both the ability and mandate to try to shape technical systems that are socially and ethically responsible. It's hard to teach both detailed technical expertise and deep critical thinking at the same time, and it seems that most schools end up focusing on one to the detriment of the other.

How is technology changing the experience of art and reading?

Karen Tanenbaum: Despite making a wearable device called the Reading Glove, most of my reading processes are stuck firmly in the last century. The power of technology as applied to art and reading is the connectivity that it can bring about. You can connect to what other people think about the work or you can see related pieces that might lead you to new discoveries. The interesting thing would be to bring that connectivity to the physical books, not to make the books themselves digital.

What other projects are you working on?

Karen Tanenbaum: As I finish the dissertation, I’m also doing a year-long internship at Intel Lab's Interaction and Experience Research Group, which is providing me with a fantastic opportunity to pursue some of the research work I've done since the Reading Glove.

My first project at Intel was to coordinate an exhibition of design fiction work called "Powered by Fiction," which ran alongside Emerge, a conference at Arizona State University on designing the future. We explored how fiction inspires the creation of physical, tangible props, costumes, and artifacts. One of the characters in the show "Captain Chronomek" was developed by me, my husband, and a colleague. The character is a time-traveling, Steampunk-flavored superhero.

The other related project that I've got going is an academic look at the subculture of Steampunk, picking apart what's driving its increased popularity. I'm a co-author on a paper on Steampunk at CHI this year. That paper looks at some of the implications of the Steampunk movement: the way it re-imagines the Industrial Revolution, the historical story of technology development, and the drive toward customization and artisan craftsmanship in technology.

And finally, I am now working on Intel's presence at Maker Faire. I had a booth at the Vancouver Mini Maker Faire this year with my husband to represent our fledging production company, Tanenbaum Fabrications. We're putting together a joint booth with some other folks at the Bay Area Maker Faire this year called Steampunk Academy. As with the Steampunk work, there's something really interesting going on with the democratization of technology design and production that is represented in the Maker movement.

I'm hoping to spend time in the next year working more with the LilyPad Arduino and other e-textile and soft circuitry components since I think that's a really exciting area for open source, tinker-y innovation.

Who inspires you? Whose work do you follow?

Karen Tanenbaum: I'm most inspired by the people doing the kind of work I was talking about above in the question about education: critical thinking on technology and the fusing of philosophy with technology design practice. Material like Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores' classic and incisive critique of artificial intelligence work in the mid '80s, and Paul Dourish's work merging Heideggerian philosophy with tangible computing and his collaboration with Genevieve Bell on science fiction and ubiquitous computing. I'm also influenced by all of Daniel Fallman's papers on what interaction design and design research is or could be. I'm also really enamored with some of the more recent work being done in merging "craft" and "design": Leah Buechely's Lilypad Arduino and High-Low Tech Lab at MIT, Daniela Rosner's work applying craft knowledge from antiquarian book restoration and knitting to technology design, and Hannah Perner-Wilson's amazing and beautiful textile sensors.

Watch a demonstration of the Reading Glove:

This interview was edited and condensed. Photos: Team Tanenbaum, on Flickr.


February 17 2012

Top stories: February 13-17, 2012

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

The stories behind a few O'Reilly "classics"
Tim O'Reilly: "It's amazing to me how books I first published more than 20 years ago are still creating value for readers."

How to create a visualization
Creating a visualization requires more than just data and imagery. Pete Warden outlines the process and actions that drove his new Facebook visualization project.

Let's remember why we got into the publishing business
At the 2012 Tools of Change for Publishing Conference this week in New York City, keynoter LeVar Burton reminded the audience why storytelling will always matter.

There's Plan A, and then there's the plan that will become your business
Drawing from the Lean Startup and other methods, "Running Lean" helps entrepreneurs transform flawed Plan A ideas into viable companies. "Running Lean" author Ash Maurya explains the basics in this interview.

The bond between data and journalism grows stronger
This interview with Liliana Bounegru, project coordinator of Data Driven Journalism at the European Journalism Centre, offers more insight into why the importance of data journalism continues to grow in the age of big data.

Strata 2012, Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work. Save 20% on Strata registration with the code RADAR20.

September 15 2011

The work of data journalism: Find, clean, analyze, create ... repeat

Data journalism has rounded an important corner: The discussion is no longer if it should be done, but rather how journalists can find and extract stories from datasets.

Of course, a dedicated focus on the "how" doesn't guarantee execution. Stories don't magically float out of spreadsheets, and data rarely arrives in a pristine form. Data journalism — like all journalism — requires a lot of grunt work.

With that in mind, I got in touch with Simon Rogers, editor of The Guardian's Datablog and a speaker at next week's Strata Summit, to discuss the nuts and bolts of data journalism. The Guardian has been at the forefront of data-driven storytelling, so its process warrants attention — and perhaps even full-fledged duplication.

Our interview follows.

What's involved in creating a data-centric story?

Simon RogersSimon Rogers: It's really 90% perspiration. There's a whole process to making the data work and getting to a position where you can get stories out of it. It goes like this:

  • We locate the data or receive it from a variety of sources — from breaking news stories, government data, journalists' research and so on.
  • We then start looking at what we can do with the data. Do we need to mash it up with another dataset? How can we show changes over time?
  • Spreadsheets often have to be seriously tidied up — all those extraneous columns and weirdly merged cells really don't help. And that's assuming it's not a PDF, the worst format for data known to humankind.
  • Now we're getting there. Next up we can actually start to perform the calculations that will tell us if there's a story or not.
  • At the end of that process is the output. Will it be a story or a graphic or a visualisation? What tools will we use?

We've actually produced a graphic (of how we make graphics) that shows the process we go through:

Guardian data journalism process
Partial screenshot of "Data journalism broken down." Click to see the full graphic.

What is the most common mistake data journalists make?

Simon Rogers: There's a tendency to spend months fiddling around with things that are only mildly diverting. It's so easy to get sidetracked into statistical curiosities rather than telling stories that really matter. It's much more important to strive to create amazing work that will be remembered. You won't always succeed, but you will get closer.

Does data journalism require a team, or is it possible for one person to do all the work?

Simon Rogers: You can go solo. I set up the Datastore and ran it for more than a year on my own. But having a team you can call on is very useful. We have access to people who can scrape sites, people who can work with databases, and graphic designers who can make the results look beautiful. We also work with people out there in the world, bringing their expertise into what we do. With the web, you never have to operate on your own.

Strata Summit New York 2011, being held Sept. 20-21, is for executives, entrepreneurs, and decision-makers looking to harness data. Hear from the pioneers who are succeeding with data-driven strategies, and discover the data opportunities that lie ahead.

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Are the data-driven stories you create updatable?

Simon Rogers: It's a constant issue. The clever thing is to try to make stuff either incredibly easy to update or something that happens without having to think too much about it. We aren't quite there yet, but we're working on it.

What data tools do you use?

Simon Rogers: It's a very personal thing, that. For us it includes: Excel, TextEdit (it's amazing how many times you just need to work on code or formulas without formatting), Google Fusion Tables, Google Spreadsheets, Timetric, Many Eyes, Adobe Illustrator, and Tableau.

This interview was edited and condensed.


July 29 2011

A story takes shape amidst tweets and pauses

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder's Guide to Digital Books." We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It's republished with permission.)

"In music, in poetry, and in life, the rest, the pause, the slow movements are essential to comprehending the whole." — Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid (Harper Perennial, 2008; p. 213)

I've been thinking a lot lately about silence, about contemplation, about the meaning we derive from the blank spaces artists leave unoccupied.

The novelist Reif Larsen did something on Twitter last week that showed how, in an age of Information Overload, sometimes the best stories are those that arrive in small morsels, spaced generously.

So, here's what Reif wrote on July 19th:

Package from Serbia just arrived. I did not request such a package. I wonder the % of unrequested packages that end up being life-changing.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

That's odd, I thought. A little quirky, a little spooky in our post-Unabomber world. Next, came … well, what came next is I went away. I didn't check Twitter for a day or so, determined to keep my vacation free of digital bits. I cheated, alas, and what I saw from Reif was a report that:

Package is actually a series of packages nestled inside of each other, like a matryoshka doll. I'm on package #13. No sign of the center.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

Hmm. Interesting. Now he had me thinking. Partly it was journalist-type questions: What's he up to with all this? Should I ping him and say “Not to be all Mom-ish, but, careful, man, ok? His next post arrived the following day:

I am at box #54, with still no sign of the center. At least the boxes are getting smaller. #54 was the size of old woman's fist.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

By now I found myself enchanted with this, the Tale of the Russian Doll Package. The following day he tweeted:

Box #79. Using tweezers now. Wondering how this ends.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

Even away from Twitter and my various gadgets I found myself thinking about this box, the sender, what was coming next. I was, of course, drawn in by that age old question: What happens next?

The next day, a tiny hint arrived, a tapas-sized bit of plot, suggesting the end was near:

It's done. I opened the smallest box imaginable and inside was... I couldn't really tell. It's too small. Need to borrow a magnifying glass.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

Now here's what's interesting, I think. Reif is someone with a demonstrated talent for creating long-form, immersive stories that last several hundred pages. His work as a novelist has cast its spell on me using all the usual tricks: great writing, compelling characters, plot twists.

And yet in this new, serialized Twitter tale, Reif wove for me, and others, another kind of story. One that didn't immerse us as deeply as a novel. But it showcased the quirky, elegant writing that seems to be Reif's style. And part of the charm here stems from the spaces that Reif inserted. The way he let his story linger and unfurl. He didn't, it's worth noting, try to take an already-told tale and sprinkle it out via Twitter. He composed, for this new medium, a new kind of story.

Reif ended things on a gentle, ethereal, mysterious (who's Elmore? I have no idea) note:

Borrowed Elmore's magnifier. Amazing. The thing at the center of all those boxes: a minuscule puppet. A woman. The size of a grain of salt.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

Is there a business model here? Is this a helpful way to build Reif's online following? Who cares. For me the takeaway is this: the art of storytelling is alive and well … it just sometimes arrives in new packages.

TOC Frankfurt 2011 — Being held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, TOC Frankfurt will feature a full day of cutting-edge keynotes and panel discussions by key figures in the worlds of publishing and technology.

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