Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Picnic08 – Surprising Africa, data visualisation and a little augmented reality

September 30th, 2008 by Seb Chan

Picnic is a large ‘creativity’ conference held annually in Amsterdam. I’ve been here as a guest of n8 talking about the notion of ‘open museums’.

Here is the final set of notes (with only a minor cleanup for the sake of timeliness).

Closing off my time at Picnic were visits to a couple of parallel sessions. One of the things I was keen to check out was part of the day long ‘Surprising Africa’ programme. This event featured speakers from Africa talking about what most in the ‘West’ would describe as ‘remarkable innovations’. The point, in part being that Western media portrays Africa as an exotic, dangerous, sometimes, lawless, and difficult place – whilst the reality is quite different. Thus what seems ‘remarkable’ is often only because of our collective ignorance.

The day was in part organised by Ethan Zuckerman from Global Voices who has done a great job of summarising. Likewise Erik Hursman’s presentation and notes is essential reading/viewing. As Erik says – if it works in Africa it will work anywhere – and I think one possible future for the mobile Internet is already visible in Africa.

Over in the main auditorium there was a fantastic double presentation from two of the leading lights of data visualisation – Ben Cerveny from Stamen and Jose-Luis de Vicente from Media Lab Prado in Madrid. In fact I think that these two presentations were the highlight of the main hall. Cerveny’s presentation, ‘The Alchemy of Understanding’, was a lovely poetic piece – data visualisation as “the transformation of data into understanding”, “synaesthesia of the world” with the “CPU as the philosopher’s stone”. He spoke of how in designing Diggswarm – a visualisation of how stories rise and fall within Digg – it was essential to create a set of rules to make the visualisation meaningful. As he put it, visualisation requires the generating of a “physics of each dataspace”. I especially liked his final comments that we are now in “an age of meta exploration”.

Jose-Luis de Vicente zipped through a wealth of material. For him and his work at Media Lab Prado the aim is to make use of as many public available datasets as possible. He demonstrated The Atlas of Electromagnetic Space, a project that shows the official uses of the spectrum alongside the activist and artistic interventions in these spaces.

He spoke of the ‘quantified self’ which is also emerging as projects as divergent as Last.fm and Nike’s iPod linkup and the recently popular Bedpost make it possible for individuals and communities to record more data than ever about their own activities. Whilst some of these already allow simple visualisations, or at least data export (see LastGraph from Aerocode for beautiful visualisations of Last.fm profile data), there is a lack of high quality interactive works. Then he showed Mail Garden, another collaborative project to emerge from the Media Lab Prado, which is visualisation of email patterns in one’s own mailbox. Lovely.

Casastristes is a public database of empty housing across Spain and is also features a number of nice interactive infographics showing the changes in housing affordability and building rates across Spain. Casastristes exemplifies the need to move from ‘just’ visualisation to social action.

Here he showed Cascade on Wheels, a project that scraped traffic data from the Madrid government website and presented it as an interactive map of traffic density in the city. In Cascade on Wheels, busy streets appear as ‘walls’ of traffic that can be seen to prevent or disrupt social activities and reveal patterns of discontinuity between areas of the city.

Nuage Vert uses projections onto industrial smokestacks to reveal the pollution levels generated by industrial plants; and AEG’s Noise Awareness reveals data about noise in the city in the city itself.

Running out of time, Vincente concluded by asking what sort of new efficiencies could be gained if the data held by city-owned bicycle scheme Bicing might offer up if the data about which cycle bays were empty, which were not, and the rate of exchange and use were made public? For one, it would be immediately possible to find out where the nearest city bike was – without needing to chance it to the next station. Of course, the city has contracted out the service to a private provider and the data has become locked up, reducing efficiencies and ultimately public good.

The final session of Picnic08 for me was on augmented reality. With a room full of marketers looking for the edge in ‘interactive marketing’ I was pleased that the Nokia presenter David Murphy, focussed on other possibilities for augmented reality. He opened with a series of slides showing the advance of augmented reality technologies from huge backpack computers and headsets to what we have now – a mobile phone with built in camera, GPS, compass and accelerometer. Basically the clunky prototypes made by computer science researchers only 5 years ago have been rapidly superseded by mobile phones. He demonstrated a number of new applications coming from the Nokia Labs which make the AR of Engin on Android look positively old school.

And that was the end of my Picnic. I hope you have enjoyed reading these notes.

Tags: 1 Comment

  • Thank you. It was highly rewarding to read all these posts. Due to organisational obligations I have only seen half of these presentations, and I must agree on Ben’s awesome feat. Starting with the Higgs field and making physics analogies for data visualisation was my highlight of PICNIC. Incredible. I enjoyed the story Michael from Nike+, as it is an interesting example of going beyond the scope of your own product. Aaron Koblin was very good too, and the presentations at Surprising Africa that I have seen.
    All in all, PICNIC ’08 was a memorable experience, with good chats and insightful talks. You should move to Amsterdam and come work with us…