Recently in Q&A Category

Last week, Ben Fry, whom I've talked about here before, agreed to answer a few questions by e-mail for what’s become something of a Q&A series here at Canary in the Data Mine. He shared his thoughts about history of visualization, balancing creativity, and Apple’s software development policies.


What was your background before your Ph.D. work at MIT?

I studied graphic design and computer science, but separately. I was interested in both since I was young, then during undergrad, majored in design at Carnegie Mellon, and minored in computer science.

How has the field of data visualization changed since you began?

When I started lecturing about it about 10 years ago, I had to explain a lot more that, one, too much data was a problem, and two, visualization was a possible solution. Five years ago, people no longer needed to be convinced that data was a problem, but weren’t very familiar with visualization. In the last year or two it’s shifted to people asking for data visualization directly. It’s a bit surreal.

What do you see in store for the field going forward?

I’m not a good person to answer this — I wouldn’t have predicted that things would be where they are today. For instance, having done work for years with trying to get data myself, or scraping it from sites, or having to do a lot of digging and asking, it’s such an incredible change to have “open data” be something that people are advocating and pushing for, even with the government in the form of

What’s your current favorite example of inspiring data visualization?

I usually find work outside data visualization most inspiring. Golan Levin turned me on to the work of Tim Hawkinson, for example, who is an artist who does a lot of work about putting form around different kinds of “data.” I’m most inspired by work that helps us see things differently, or helps engage our curiosity. Or things that are clever and beautiful.

Who else is involved with your consulting venture? What sort of team do you have?

I incorporated at the beginning of the year, and have been working to build out a firm that will help me address larger projects/ideas/problems than I can work on alone. It’s started with mostly freelancers and will soon evolve into a couple staff plus freelancers.

For whom do you consult, and about what?

This varies quite a bit. I’ve been doing work for GE around their Ecomagination and Healthymagination initiatives, which I can talk about since the projects are public, but I can’t talk about the others. The GE work has largely been about taking data and turning it into something comprehensible that can reach a wider audience. The other projects are in a similar vein — they just vary across different fields (genetics, finance, pharma), which also keeps things interesting.

Do you have the freedom, in your current position, to explore your own interests freely?

I try to balance client work with personal projects, since this helps keep ideas moving and also provides better examples that I can show to potential clients. I’ve found it really important to maintain that balance (at the cost of just working all the time) for preventing burnout.

What is your most fanciful dream for the iPad?

That Apple gives up on their ridiculous attempts to control who creates for it, and what they can create for it. Their policy of controlling all distribution of applications created for it, and requiring approval on all applications is insulting to developers, especially those who have created software for their products for years. It’s an amazing platform and device, but I have a hard time getting excited about developing for it. If such restrictions were in place when I was first learning to write software — mostly on Apple machines, no less — I wouldn’t today be getting interviewed for a curious stranger’s blog.

Update: Ben Fry has written more about Apple and developing for the iPad on his site since this interview was conducted.

A Q&A with Jeff Barry of Soro Design

Some of us are excited about the new media and what it holds for conveying information to readers. Jeff Barry, the self-declared "tech guy" at Soro Design, is among them. This week he took the time to answer some of my questions by e-mail about book publishing's brave new world.


What sort of work does Soro Design do?

We design books. We design book covers as well as the typography & page layout within a book. We're particularly interested in the interaction among text, imagery, and the white space of a page. We also design author websites.

Do you work mainly with self-published authors, or with other publishing houses?

Most of our clients are self-published authors and small presses. The self-publishers who choose our design service are typically authors who also have hired an editor and plan to put forth the effort into marketing their books.

How did your boutique design studio get started?

SoroDesign was founded in 2005 by Cecilia Sorochin and myself as a graphic design agency developing materials for print and Web. The name SoroDesign is derived from Cecilia's last name. In 2007 we shifted our focus to book design since we both have a love for books and printed material. I also worked as a librarian for 15 years, managing various digital library projects, which combined my interests in books & technology. Moving into the niche of book design was a natural progression for us. Likewise, moving into the niche of interactive e-book design would be a natural progression. Yet, we also believe very strongly that there is a bright future for beautifully designed print books.

How has the web influenced the design of print books?

As an influence, the web hasn't changed the style of print books. The Web does facilitate many aspects of book design: identifying and obtaining the appropriate fonts and stock images for a book is a major advantage brought about by the Internet.

And  the web certainly broadens the access that any author or press has to a variety of book designers.

The development of print on demand (POD) enabled completely through Web transactions (from submission to ordering the physical book) is having a large impact on print books.

What is your philosophy regarding the relationship between an author web site and a print book?

An author's web site is the author's business card on the Internet. It's a lot about branding: establishing and re-enforcing the online identity of the author. Generally, I tend to view author web sites as existing for potential readers, those who have not yet read the book. In that perspective, author web sites are promotional tools. And I think that's how most author web sites exist at the moment, especially for writers of fiction. Let me talk a bit more about websites for fiction writers, then I'll examine how it might differ for writers of non-fiction.

Another view is gearing a site for fans of a book (or an author) and providing a more in-depth experience for those readers. This works well for authors who have a loyal following and want to follow more of the author's life through a blog, again here I'm thinking of novelists. As far as fiction goes (and I love fiction), I'm not really sure how many readers actually want to engage further on a Web site about a book. Literary blogs and resources provide a good mechanism for that function, and I'm not sure it needs to be extended or replicated on the website of a fiction writer. (Remembering, also, that the novelist has long moved onto writing his or her next novel by the time anyone is reading the current one.)

But for non-fiction the book's web site might serve an entirely different purpose. Accepting the assumption that all non-fiction books stem from a significant amount of research then the print book captures the analysis and argument at a specified point in time. The book's web site could then become a forum for furthering the analysis and discussing around the book's topic. Revisions to the book or an entirely new book could result from such online discussions fostered by a book's web site. The print book is merely a layer in the scholarship. My perspective on the web & non-fiction books is influenced by my background in academic libraries and scholarly communications.

What sort of books to you imagine first moving to electronic publishing?

Books that are textual narratives are now making the transition. A big issue is the preferred reading device. Small devices require a text format that can reflow, i.e., adjust to the dimensions of various screen sizes and to the reader's preference for type size. Hence, straight text is making that transition first. If reflow is not an issue, then any book is now a candidate for e-publishing through PDF, which is a byproduct of much print book design. (Most books are designed in either Adobe InDesign or Quark and a resulting PDF is generated for the printer to produce the physical book. That same PDF or an optimized version could be used for Web delivery. Note that some technical publishers will use other tools for the page layout.)

The reflow requirement make the transition to digital very difficult for many non-fiction books that utilize images, diagrams, and other layout features. Of course, PDF works well for books that do require fidelity to the printed page.

With the imminent arrival of a new generation of tablet computers, led by the iPad, we're going to see a new emphasis on e-books that are not merely textual. And there's not going to be one clear way that those books will be implemented. Some will attempt to use the EPUB standard, which accommodates reflow very well. Others will simply be PDF (which should be quite viewable on any tablet-sized screen). And others will be custom designed apps for the iPad that will take advantage of the iPad's capabilities in ways that an EPUB or PDF e-book could not handle. Of course, these custom iPad e-book apps will be expensive to develop but for certain titles (particularly non-fiction) then that may offer an author and publishing a way to really distinguish a book/an app from another title on the market.

My real concern is that device fragmentation, which is inevitable, will lead to e-books designed along the lowest common denominator approach. E-book design is really web design, and developing an e-book app for a tablet device is both design and programming. Anyone who has priced web design that properly utilizes CSS, as will be required for e-books, knows that it's not inexpensive. It's going to be very difficult and expensive for a publisher to produce an e-book, and especially an e-book app, that will work and display the same across all possible platforms. The result is likely to be a lowest common denominator design for most e-books.

Of course, most print books already exhibit vast similarities in their design. Many print books are based on layout templates. So this similarity of e-books may, in fact, not be a big concern in the long run for most people. However, there will be a niche of highly designed e-books, just as there is a niche of highly designed print books. And that niche is our customer base at SoroDesign. At the moment, we're looking at both PDF and custom designed e-books apps for the iPad.

Publishers of interactive non-fiction e-books, which by their nature require custom design, will have the challenge of supporting multiple platforms: iPad & any other tablet-based computing devices as well as desktop/laptop/netbook devices. There is much speculation that this will be accomplished through developing content solely via an environment that supports multi-platforms such as HTML5 or WebKit. And that may very well be the dominant method. But I think that there also will be some information products that will solely be available on the iPad (with an alternative packaging for iPhone). This is similar to
how some software is only developed for the Mac and some only for Windows. This will be particularly true for interactive content that makes use of distinct features of the iPad (e.g., the accelerometer). Publishers will have to make strategic choices platforms and functionality for interactive non-fiction content.

What do you think the distribution channels for such books with be?

There's a number of players jockeying for position. In addition to the standard booksellers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) and publisher direct options, hardware manufacturers are offering a potentially attractive marketplace. Apple is clearly building on the success of iTunes and Google is developing an online marketplace around its Android system, which appears to be the OS of choice around many other mobile devices.

How do you think an aspiring author might fund such a project in the early days of electronic book publishing?

Difficult question. While in one sense, self published authors can offer an e-book on Kindle for practically no cost (if the book is just text and the author isn't that concerned with the resulting display layout), but the development complex e-books are like any other successful print book and really requires a team approach. For most authors that's not practical or realistic to fund out of pocket.

In addition to traditional publishers expanding to produce more complex e-books, I'm very optimistic that a new category of publishers will emerge that will foster the development of e-books that make heavy use of imagery, multimedia, and the varying capabilities of platforms like the iPad. These new publishers are likely to partner with writers in new ways. For instance, a new publisher developing content specifically for iPad might offer an aspiring author a low or no advance in return for greater royalties to the author. Of course, the difficulty is matching aspiring author to an emerging publisher experimenting with new business models and forms of content delivery.

On her web site, Innovative Interactivity, Tracy Boyer reviews recent graphics, profiles big names in multimedia, and provides resources for people who, like myself, are just getting started in the field. Last week, she agreed to answer some of my questions about her project.

How did you get started with visual journalism?
Looking back, I realize now that I actually got into multimedia back in high school when I was a part of a morning broadcast news program my sophomore year. I also created a bilingual documentary for my senior project teaching Hispanics how to do important tasks like get a driver's license, buy gas, etc. In college I tested out several majors, including astronomy and public relations before finally landing in multimedia after taking an "Intro to Flash" course with Laura Ruel. I fully credit Laura and that course for making me fall in love with the potential of visual journalism and interactive technology.
How did Innovative Interactivity get started?
I started blogging after attending the Poynter Summer Fellowship in 2007 where we were encouraged to get more involved in blogging and social media. At the time I was only on Facebook, and I thought it was impossible to find the time to bookmark the sites I visited on, write frequent blog posts, tweet interesting thoughts on Twitter, post my photos to Flickr, etc.  I remember being so overwhelmed that I started doing baby steps, first learning del.icios, then blogging on Blogger (with the clever blog title of "Tracy Boyer's blog"!), then tweeting. I'm still not using Flickr, Digg, StumbleUpon, and others, so you can see that I still have some baby steps to go!
What do you find is your most popular type of post?
It's really interesting to look at the analytics behind each post, because many times the posts that don't take as much time and thought are the ones that are the most popular. Anything with a number (10 must-see projects, 100 multimedia professionals...) always make a big ripple. Listing resources for different topics like my recent one with information visualization also seem to catch the attention of a lot of readers.
I love your tagline, "a digital watering hole for multimedia enthusiasts." How have you tried to nurture a community of readers?
Thanks! Honestly, I thought of that tagline while running one day because I wanted this site to be more of a collaborative forum than me preaching opinions. However, unfortunately the majority of time it's just me talking with little to no feedback. I know that people are reading because they are very gracious on a general level, but it normally takes a lot for people to actively comment on particular posts. One day a commenter made a great remark, but then e-mailed me quickly thereafter asking me to remove her comment when she realized that it was "featured" on the homepage in the list of recent comments. I wish I could have more of a discussion with my readers, and I will continually work towards that goal by asking more questions in my posts and bringing up controversial topics. But it's extremely hard to build an audience, so I'm proud of the community that II has built thus far.
Have you considered adding forums or other community attributes to the site, to foster the "watering hole" aspect?

I have seen several Ning sites in action with similar topics to that of II, and they always seem to dwindle. I'd rather not provide a forum that nobody uses, and instead wait until the community is large enough where I could anticipate good traffic to those types of components.
Do you do any promotion of your site, subtle or otherwise, on other multimedia journalism sites?

I do actively engage in dialogue with other bloggers, as well as promote II through word-of-mouth, talks, etc. It is a very delicate balance though between getting the word out about II and being obnoxious about it. I'm sure you will experience the same in promoting your blog!

Is Adobe Flash the only advertiser on your site? How did you get set up with them?
I use Commission Junction for my advertising purposes, which lets me pick my own advertisers. I currently have all Adobe ads, but I have used others in the past, including GoDaddy. I personally hate ads, so I try my best to make the ads relevant to the content on the site. Then I use Google ads on my RSS feeds. 
Is advertising your only source of revenue, or do you have other methods of financing the site?
You have to build a significant audience before you can get direct sponsors which brings in the real money. I make maybe $10 a month from my advertisements. Right now blogging isn't about making money, but rather building the community and audience so hopefully one day I can turn a profit. I always tell people that II has been (and is) a labor of love. 
What other projects are you involved with, besides Innovative Interactivity?
Each weekday morning I work on a news aggregation Web site called i360Gov. I am also part of UNC's News 21 project, where we are producing multimedia stories about energy issues for the site Then I have my master's thesis going on where I am researching the differences in short-tern retention rates and user satisfaction levels between passive and interactive multimedia.
What have you learned about the data visualization community from running this site?
I would say my audience is more interested in all forms of multimedia storytelling, with data visualization and graphics being one subset. It has been amazing to note the people I have "met" through blogging, and it is inspiring to hear their passionate ramblings about our field.

After working at Festoon Salon in Berkeley and San Francisco, Betty McCain founded her own company — Chop Salon in Berkeley, Calif. Yesterday, we had a conversation about her motivation and process.


How did you decide to strike out on your own and open your own salon?

I really wanted just to be my own boss. I thought about all the things I would need to get started, how much it would cost to do that, and how much income I needed to bring in to make it happen once I was working. I was very determined that I would be okay. Then I decided to take the risk.

How much of a pain was it to jump through the legal & permitting hoops?

It was ridiculous how many places and things you need to get going. There were permits to build, permits to say it is okay to build — one person says one thing, then another disagrees. And all the offices are in different parts of town and you need everyone to sign a form and pay more money. One time, they told me to get a signature and I ran all the way to this other building, and they told me they didn't need to sign. The communication is all wrong.

Another time, I was getting a special establishment license through the state. It would have taken two months to do it by mail. I drove to one office, paid it in cash — they didn't take check or credit — then had to drive to another office across town and bring the receipt to show I paid it, just to get things rolling faster. What a pain in the ass.

What were you looking for in the physical space you rented?

I wanted good lighting, big windows, and a high ceiling. Since it's a salon, I needed easy plumbing accessibility and new electrical with lots of outlets. I also wanted a good storefront, on a busy street, with okay parking, in a safe neighborhood. And I wanted to stay close to the area where I was used to seeing my clients.

I see on your web site that you have another stylist working with you. How did that partnership come about?

She found me when I opened and seems to be working out great. Although I had another girl for a while who didn't.

What have you done to find more business?

I have a web site, a Facebook page, a MySpace page, Yelp — I do client discounts, referrals, door-to-door flyering, parties, art shows, a fashion show...everything.

On the subject of art shows, can you tell me a little about your decision to pair with local artists and have a gallery space in your salon?

I have such big walls, and I always had this little dream of having art shows. I do it for two months at a time, and finding artists seems pretty easy. It's also a great way to promote the salon — when we have an opening for a new artist, new people come in that may never have known we were there.

Were you anxious about starting a business in a recession?

I just knew things would work out. I know it seems kind of funny, but I just had this feeling. I figured if I did it on a bare minimum need, meaning I didn't spend too much and go overboard on things — and my overhead is pretty low. I figure things can only get better, and so far they have been pretty good.

If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently?

I think everything went just about as smoothly as it could've. I might do something small, like different floors or different tables. As far as the business side of things, I am still taking things day by day and learning as I go.

About this site

    Katie Peek is a science writer and astronomer who is figuring out how to give voice to information and data. This web site is a log of her voyage.