Jane Jacobs and February

Starting the reading list for generals with Jane Jacobs’ Life and Death of Great American Cities may have been a terrible idea. It’s been a month(now almost 2), and I am still only 200 pages in to this first book on my list. A few weeks ago while having drinks out, I mentioned how hard it was to focus on this book. A woman sitting several tables down from us voiced her agreement. “What the f is she talking about?” were her exact words. After 200 pages, I am invested in Jacob’s thesis, but can’t help but resent a little the way she has chosen to write it.

Last night was a phd group meeting, and everyone has progressed so much! I must keep up.  Resetting the agenda for February, I am simplifying the goals to just 3:

1. Finishing my write up for the contextual area on Children and the city. This will require a little more reading of Jacobs, but the rest of the reading list are mostly papers and good things like revisiting Kevin Lynch. For the write-up I will focus specifically on assessment methods of quality of life for children in urban environments, perceptions of danger, and how these factors can be expressed visually in an atlas to aid planning, investing, everyday decision making for families.

2. I will research the concept of distributed urban planning, focusing on background information. This will include the scale of actions, case studies, and of course existing tools. From this literature review of existing practices and platforms, I will summarize features, design principles(human interaction), and an action plan for building a digital atlas and putting it out for public use.

3. LAST I will start a extensive review of the massive amounts of literature on data visualization and weed out the fun but not useful ones. That’s key, I have such a hard time letting go of stacks of papers. This will prep me for the tech area write up. I will most likely focus on mapping, its cognitive aspects, HCI.

sound good? go!

The General Exam

Now that the exam is taking shape a bit more, here is the introduction I drafted last week:

The democratization of map-making is occurring rapidly and consists of participatory and collaborative workflows as equal shares to evolving geolocation, sensor, and visualization technology. This development occurs within the context of the popularization of interactive visualization platforms, and the proliferation of open data initiatives. We increasingly consume these visuals in fragments as a part of our daily information diet, and to an extent we are increasingly digital map-makers ourselves.

As much as their consumption have been popularized, and their production streamlined, there is still a lot of exciting spaces for improvement in the development of web-based thematic maps. For visualizing urban information in particular, there are opportunities to be found in how the inclusion of diverse data sources and the flexibility of thematic not navigational mapping on devices allow residents of a city to form deeper understandings of their environments.

Mapping is centered around the human experience. They are “graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world.”* Every map is a set of claims being actively negotiated and contested as it is drawn. In visualizing a city to plan for interventions, we are often unaware that initial acts of mapping, the necessity of selection or omission of information, are interventions within themselves.

This exam will address 3 areas of challenges faced in placing modern web-based thematic cartography front and center in the communication of city environments and using maps as the basis for urban interventions.

  1. Main: The potentials for urban thematic cartography in the light of technological development, democratization, and it’s history
  2. Technical: Current and future technologies for implementing interactive visualizations specifically to fit different devices and use contexts
  3. Contextual: Taking into consideration a variety of ways to measure the city, methods to improve access to measurements of urban environment as well as the communication of these measures.

A Comprehensive Wishlist

There are always so many things to make! The best way to think about a project for me is to read, write, learn, and build my way through it. Over the past few years, every programming skill has been learned “on the job”. While this method is no doubt efficient, it is in no way comprehensive, nor does it instill confidence.

I can’t help but think about everything that I am missing. So many ideas falling through the cracks made by lack of experience and time. The projects that are left on my plate often feel like the lowest hanging fruit, and completing them produce more anxiety of what is missed than anything else.

The only manageable solution seems to be making a list, a best case scenario wish list of all the projects I would do if time and cost was of no consequence. So here is a list, a first step to structuring my time and being more content. It is also a start to something I have never attempted in earnest – looking for collaboration.

Hopefully each of these will expand into their own posts, steps, sketches, schedules, and finally fully fledged projects. Here it is so far.

  • Understanding the application layer as a consumer, or “How many clicks to cancer?”
  • Location based phone app for census data. Instead of points of interest or restaurant recommendations, or on top of them, the app tells you about the demographics, issues, and  unique things about where you are. A first step would be to build a web based version and imagine the scenarios and features before moving onto app development.
  • Adding texture and style to maps programatically. Making maps into physical artwork.
  • Elegant time-lapse animated interactive of networks with network analysis built into interactive filters. Using the visual concepts embedded in network graphs to draw out interactive narratives. Making visualization the landing site of a story rather than text. Using Royal Society data from an old project to start.
  • Connecting dots and giving context with live streamed news items. A simple eighth ball interaction for the day’s news, a few bits at a time.

How to Experience the Census

The census is deeply personal, and it is richly location specific. Unfortunately the way we experience it is most often in aggregate and anonymous, and our perspective broad and in a bird’s eye view or even at the altitude of satellites. It is also rarely engage with by those not conducting research, or in single charts as supplemental material to a news item. To change this, I have been experimenting with how best to communicate this incredible source of information.

This wealth of data, as well as other data collected and published by open data and open government initiatives would be deeply beneficial anyone. But first we have to figure out the scale, presentation, time interval, length of engagement, and features to best present each dataset. Just lowering the barrier to this data by a small fraction would invite a much larger audience.

The first experiment resulted in @censusAmericans, published at fivethirtyeight. It is a twitter bot that tweets census data at regular intervals, taking the American Community Survey’s PUMS dataset into mini bios. The result is an ambient stream of data interjected into people’s everyday experiences, so that it allows followers to digest bits of the census in their twitter stream surrounded by other news.

A second set of experiments will be location based. When visiting a city for a few days, we search for everything from landmarks to local favorites. U.S. cities, in the middle and mid-west of the country are surprisingly exotic. They are foreign and familiar at the same time. As a tourist, I found myself interested in the most mundane of information, anything to give my brief experience context. I wanted trivia, historical facts, personal anecdotes. But even more helpful would have been understanding the conditions and context of place, what a neighborhood is, how it came to be, and who I can expect to run into…

Place specific and data driven stories generated by user location data can be made readily available to enrich more traditional formats of information for tourists, or even books and essays about places. Many come to mind for New York City, my particular favorites were Joseph Mitchell’s. They are very granular, often about a just a house or a block, at one time, or about one citizen, but they are emblems of the city.

A recent project making a map out of great american road novels is one example of placing prose. For my purposes, the sources, format, and goals are a bit different.

I want to build data visualizations that are straight forward and simple, not gimmicky or overwrought. Here is a first run at some design principles I have been thinking about.

  • clean and traditional visual forms
  • compare and contrast data at different scales to better tell story
  • make stories for both mobile and web
  • length of engagement correspond to scale of data
  • make stories ready for on demand use, driven both by user and news events

Old Failures

In the time since I started to make maps almost 2 years ago, there have been many many important failed attempts. And since one failure was keeping up with a blog that documented this process, some of my favorite mistakes are remembered below.

a scatterplot of color along a street, why?
a scatterplot of color along a street, why?
learning all about positioning
learning all about positioning
red brick buildings heatmap along street, what?!
red brick buildings heatmap along street, what?!
overly ambitious treegraph
overly ambitious treegraph
subway filled
subway filled
inconclusive layers of Cambridge
inconclusive layers of Cambridge
sparse github network of sausage links
sparse github network of sausage links
reconstructed something
reconstructed something
first attempt at pie chart, not a pie chart
first attempt at pie chart, not a pie chart
ill fated histogram of cambridge
ill fated histogram of cambridge

Study Areas – list 1

To start, here is a list of all the things I would like to become a minor expert in through my general exams process. It is a wish list that has yet to be prioritized, tied down to disciplines, readings, or readers.

  • history++ of mapping and graphing (progress, politics, projections, use, future)
  • narrative visualizations
  • visual perception and cognition of graphical elements
  • interactive graphics in practice (journalistic, public/government, art)
  • survey of US based public data
  • long form visualization based storytelling
  • spatial reasoning for visualization
  • visualization and wayfinding
  • ambient data
  • mapmakers and visualizers, turning points in history
  • modular tool development
  • building web-based visualizations to enable behavior change
  • lowering access barrier to location based public data using visual/technical methods

I will build:

  • base tools for journalistic visualization
  • a sense of humor into visualizations
  • tools for contributing to, and understanding my place in the world

or more specifically:

  1. an atlas for overview – interactive census atlas
  2. an coincidence finder for understanding context
  3. a location based app for understanding where you are