Elucidata: the New Canary

singleHed-elucidata.gifI've been blogging of late over at Elucidata, on the Scienceline site. Most recently, I'm complaining about inflation. Again.

It may not be data visualization exactly, but it is visual, and it is cool. It’s footage of the Apollo 11 launch at 500 frames per second — twenty times the normal video frame rate. Pretty glorious.

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch (HD) Camera E-8 from Mark Gray on Vimeo.

Occasionally I remember just how crazy it is that we sent humans to the moon. In 1969. With hard-wired, analog technology. Makes telling interactive stories on the iPad seem like a lark.


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 data.gov.

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 new logo, some new fonts, a couple other small changes just happened on this site. In honor of the upgrade, I present three of my favorite typography web sites.
300&65 Ampersands is a straightforward Tumblr blog with a new ampersand every day. Start your day with an ampersand.
I Love Typography is a more general font site, with font reviews, guest posts by font designers, and design commentary. It's always engrossing.

Typesites reviews entire web sites made with beautiful type, which has the added wonderful-ness of uncovering new corners of the web.

Non-Virtual Design, on Video

Over at the Tweed blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education (h/t Jane Lindholm), they posted this beautiful video of some magnificent art that‘s made with actual paper:

Rethink Scholarship at Langara 2010 Call for Entries from Rory O'Sullivan and Simon Bruyn on Vimeo.

Josh and I have been contemplating doing some real-life data visualization (with legos!) and capturing it on video. Stay tuned.

Jason Epstein on the e-Book Revolution

“As non-negotiable as earthquakes.” That's how book publisher Jason Epstein aptly refers to new technology in “The Revolutionary Future,” which appears in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. His essay is solid, grounded, and optimistic.

He envisions a future in which it is the readers, not the publishers, who discern “Keats’ nightingale” from “Aunt Mary’s haikus.” It’s a democratic world, but as a reader, the idea exhausts me. I guess that means we'll rely even more on recommendations from our preferred tastemakers. And maybe that’s how most people find the books they read anyway. That being said, I’m a big fan of judging my books by their covers. So I’m casting my vote that the (only somewhat) hypothetical new virtual bookstore allows for browsing book covers.

Epstein also advocates for strong digital rights management, saying “without protection authors will starve and civilization will decline.” He proposes a digital lending, rather than purchasing, model, to more accurately reflect the true reader-publisher relationship. I think that idea has merit — if electronic books are going to be less expensive than paper books anyway, why not introduce them as borrowed items? I would gladly subscribe to my favorite dictionary and be free to upgrade to the next edition when it comes out, and with most books, having them for a year would probably be enough.

Check out the whole essay — it’s just great to read a piece by someone who’s not prophesying that the book-publishing sky is falling.

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.

Just above the Best Buy in Union Square, giant digital numbers tick by. Behold:

Union Square Numbers from Katie Peek on Vimeo.

I walk past these numbers once a week, at least, and wonder. So I filmed them today, and then looked into what they are. Contrary to popular (read: my) belief, they do NOT display the national debt. They are, instead, an elaborate clock. An investigation into the nature of time, if you will. The piece is titled Metronome, by Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel, and it includes the other beautiful elements of the building face.

Reading from the left, the digits display the hours, minutes, seconds elapsed since midnight (6 digits). Reading from the right, they display the hours, minutes, seconds remaining before midnight (6 digits). And in the middle the numbers just scroll (3 digits). So I made my video at 18:15:18, when the time until midnight was 05:44:41. And indeed, the middle number runs so quickly it interacts weirdly with the frame rate of my camera and displays more than one number at once.

Pretty cool.

In Which I Showcase My Spouse's Work

Josh Peek, my husband and astronomer extraordinaire, has also been learning Processing. While I'm thinking about how to use visualizations to share data with readers, Josh's goal is to use it to actually do science. Here's a graphing widget he made for some nearby galaxies. The hydrogen in those galaxies was observed with the VLA.

things_sc.gif[Click to actually play with the data.]

My Flash Clock

As an exercise in — something (futility? fastidious-ity?), I re-created my Processing clock using Flash. Lo:

Because Flash is similar to Illustrator, I had more power to make the clock look exactly as I wanted it. In Processing, the power was there, but it required a bit more work to, say, make the slices out of my rings wider than 10 pixels. Sometimes it's useful to be able to grab an object and drag it around, as Flash allows.

Second, like Processing, the animation scripts in Flash are Java. Hooray that whatever ninja-ry I learn in one will be applicable to the other.

I swear that one of these days I'm going to use these tools to tell a science story.

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.