Data as Art: Musical, Visual Web APIs

Loose notes from SXSW 2008 session “Data as Art: Musical, Visual Web APIs” with:

Peter Kirn cdm: Create Digital Media
Joy Mountford VP Design Innovation,

Amazing data visualization demos. This field is going to become increasingly important to journalists looking for new and compelling ways to tell stories online that go way beyond shovelware. The tools need to get easier, but they’re getting there. These notes can’t begin to convey how impressive the interfaces we’re starting to see are becoming.

Continuous Interface

Information use is moving into the background.
Parial attention to array of devices, media, interfaces, sevies
Need lude transition between task and its background

Create services and applications that:
Handle thousands of entities
Turn display visualizatins into interface
Put it all into a single continous UI

Most big companies don’t know what to do with all this data. “It’s in the data warehouse.” “What do you have?” “We’re not sure.”

Ambient interface

Moving globe showing Yahoo mail usage globally – not static, continously updating. Similar display showing global search queries.

These kinds of displays can expand your horizons about what’s going on around you.

When you put these displays up in public places, displaying the local zeitgeist, people become aware of what others around them are thinking about; it opens up doors they didn’t know needed opening.

What makes the words fly around is a “particle system” – a mathematical model to emulate real physical particle flow, but applied to search terms, etc. Libraries to do this kind of thing are available free in Java (and probably in other languages).

These tools are creating a new genre of interfaces.

Another: Touch a spot on the globe and get a stream of geotagged photos coming from that location (this is via Yahoo, who provide drag and drop geotagging).

iPhone connection – people getting used to touching data. Younger users are getting more used to touching data, whereas grownups will assume it’s not OK to touch the display. Kids are able to figure these displays out more quickly. Adults are sitting back and waiting for something to happen.

Internet archive – Brewster Kahle – amazing display to let you drill down into old woodcut books – laid out in a timeline UI. Librarians amazed to see this because they didn’t realize what they were sitting on. A simple display houses a quarter million interface. In and out, panning. Very intuitive, clean. Drag text right out of the books to create poetry. Librarians are afraid people will never open a book again and are excited about this because it opens up so many new doors. Targeted for schools for August.

Another amazing one showing plane flights over the U.S. in sped-up time. Like a shower of sparks, bouncing in and out of the hubs. Thousands of planes represented simultaneously. Imagine this embedded in a newspaper web site! This is currently up at MoMA in NY.

Also: (wow!)

You become sensitized to different levels of granularity in the data by switching between visualization methods (flight examples shown with three very different display styles).

How do we attach these kinds of visualizations to the social web? (I think the Digg Labs visualizations get a very good start on this ). Some of this is a “Where is my flying car?” moment.

Having your own data – the tags you use on delicious aren’t the same tags you use on flickr. Is it my data or the collective’s data?

Processing – Free Java-based software for doing data viz.

Very slim, easy to use and get started with. Advanced stuff is based on libraries – just load in the libs needed for your app.

Demo – reaches out to Flickr and grabs images with tag “red” then assembles them into an expando/contracto hands-on UI. Cool…. but useful? has great visualization stuff. Also, see the Exhibition link at

Look up: Follow spam flow as an auditory MIDI stream – beautiful.
Watch for it on – should be available for public release soon.

Arduino: Another easy to use sequencer – Arduino is an alternative to Processing.

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