12-12-2011 mag 6 /


Lots of showing off, not much showing data


Is data visualizations a pragmatic or artistic practice? This question was addressed when programmers and theorists meet up at a workshop organized by Born Digital.


While the sun was shining outside on November the 3rd, programmers and theorists came together in a dark, small room in theater Kikker to discuss the state of data visualization. As part of this year’s Impakt Festival: The Right to Know a workshop on data visualization by Born Digital should lay the gaps between theory and practice, design and concept bare open.

The dark room was soon enlightened with several visualizations. Heinze Havinga started with an attempt to rebuild an image of a city he saw on a t-shirt once, but this time as a visualization of “real” empirical data he had from all of Utrecht’s neighborhoods. It resulted in an atmospheric image with moving colors that shows how beautiful data sometimes can be. Havinga clearly had artistic intentions: he just wanted to create something which is nice to look at and therefore he had to make some concessions (which he called “cheating”) to the ability of the image to communicate pragmatic information of the underlying data. The joy in manipulating parameters and playfully struggling with technology could be read of Havinga’s face. The result impressed all. But is a correct visual translation really all we want from data visualization?

The broadcaster NOS has spotted this gap between the ability of programming and of asking the data the right critical questions. Therefore they used the workshop to address a new audience beyond programmers - the need to work together became apparent. The big Dutch broadcaster NOS has collaborated before, and presented its work with Dropstuff.

Dropstuff is exploiting a network of huge screens, slowly expanding over public places in mostly big cities all over the world. They are actively looking for creative ways to use the screens and asked the theorists to think along. Collaboration with the NOS is step one, but how can these big screens be used for an artistic purpose, or any other way by using news data provided by several press agency’s? The technology and infrastructure are at hand, but the developers still had a lack of good ideas. It shows at least how important inspiration can be in order to get creative visualizations – mastering technology is not the only important factor.

Many more visualizations techniques were presented at the workshop. From life music visualizations that change by the musical input in clubs and concerts, to more educative info graphics to present complex ideas and theories in government publications or journalistic articles. Data visualization can be a great tool to actually present information or data in order to develop knowledge and provide new insights. But – most of the visualizations shown on this day were mostly artistic, made to impress. It is still a lot of showing off, but at this edition of Impakt Festival steps are made to work towards visualizations that actually embrace the festival’s questions: visualizations that are about the right to know instead of just the right to express creative ideas.