I actually thought I had blogged about it before, but a search through my posts shows me that the #sm4ph Twitter chat has been neglected. So hereby making up for that.
#sm4ph is a Twitter hashtag dedicated to exploring aspects of social media use and how it affects public health, including the academic field of Public Health and the public’s health at large. Until recently it was a monthly chat (although not really active in the second half of 2013) but since January 2014 it has been upgraded to a weekly chat. It is moderated by Jim Garrow, who is director of Digital Public Health in the Department of Public Health in the City of Philadelphia and works like other scheduled Twitter chats: A moderator choses (often based on inputs of other chat participants) a number of questions for discussion, which are then discussed at a designated time. The #sm4ph chat takes place every Wednesday at 9pm Eastern Time (which in central Europe time means at 3am (!))
Due to the time difference I have never been able to take part in the chat, but as with other similar chats an archive is stored and made available through a website (in this case www.phsocmed.wordpress.com). In addition, the hashtag is regularly used, also by myself, for tweets which relate to the topic of social media and public health. Doing a regular check-up on #sm4ph on Twitter is a great way to get updated on new studies, initiatives and people (mostly US-based) related to social media and public health.
Should I next Wednesday night suffer from insomnia, I might try to join the chat. If not I will most likely be checking in on the Storify summarizing the chat afterwards. Of course the topic discussed is not always of interest to me, as my main interest is in public health science communication, but still it is a good way to keep up to date on ideas, initiatives and innovations in using social media for public health.
Briefly - Hopper is something new in the travel / local space. In their own words:
What if you could plan an amazing trip based on a vague idea — like “spring surfing in California” or “Mediterranean cruise”? What if logistical information popped up right when you needed it, so you wouldn't have to spend hours on research? This is our vision: to make planning a trip an effortless extension of discovering and exploring new places.
We spent several years experimenting with different tools, technology and algorithms to collect, organize and manage massive amounts of travel data. The result is a new kind of trip planning engine, powered by the world's largest structured database of travel information.
I've not remotely explored the site, but I see it as part of a trend which involves rich exploration experiences including plenty of imagery, the social aspect of local and specifically travel combined with smarts involving itinerary planning and travel booking. There are some similarities with the recently acquired RouteSet demo from PerceptLabs and also with the geo-microblog site Findery.
Visually, the exploration of a place on Hopper looks like this:
Which is to say - visually very rich with images provided (I assume) by the community. This wave of modern location products makes one ask the question - how important is the map for (engagement) in local search?
Right now, the site has some issues. As a signed in user I'm told to browse others' experiences and 'save' what I find interesting. Howerver, there is no mention of a 'save' action on any of the posts on the site. Consequently, it is a little hard right now to give a write up of how the site works. I do note posts have a reference to a source. Does hopper crawl these sources? or do the users cross post?
Update: regarding saving - a search on google for 'site:hopper.com save -near' surfaces pages which contain the word save, like this one: http://www.hopper.com/list/cities/-378 . However, the page itself according to Chrome has no instance of the string 'save' on it. Looking at the source for the page shows that there is actually a save button and other mechanisms in place. Not sure what is amiss here. Testing on IE also fails to surface any visible save functionality.
Update: I figured out the save mechanism. There is a star on each entity. Hitting the star *saves* the entity. This is a pretty poor design. Stars are generally used in interfaces associated with the term 'favourite'. Telling users they need to 'save' entities, then using a different metaphor for this action will, if I am any sort of average user, result in a lot of lost opportunity for engaging users.
In 2012, Adam Bencard and I attended the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The conference was full of energy, curiousity-driven conversation, a perhaps unsurprising amount of great vegetarian food given all the animal studies scholars, and interdisciplinary in the manner of a delicious banquet rather than a fragmented and depleted vending machine.
Whilst in Milwaukee, I was also introduced to the European chapter of SLSA, and I’m now sitting on the board and very much looking forward to the 8th SLSAeu conference in Turin, Italy this June. The conference theme is ‘Life, in Theory’, and the website contains a full description and a call for papers under several different thematic strands. Deadline is January 31st, submissions info here or via info[at]litsciarts.eu. From the website:
The VIII European Meeting of the Society for the Study of Literature, Science, and the Arts aims to continue the conversation between science and the humanities on the implications for our projected futures of the manipulation, administration, and governance of life forms. The concept of life today no longer provides sufficient ontological ground to distinguish among different forms of life and to guide ethical, political, legal, or medical actions. Thus, a discussion across disciplinary forms of knowledge and theories of life, and the practices they authorize, is literally to confront issues of life and death.
Alongside paper presentations, roundtables, keynotes from the likes of Prof. Robert Esposito and Prof. Cary Wolfe, Adam and I are organizing a public performance event as part of the conference, and a bioart exhibit is also being planned.
As many of you know, I have been very concerned about the lack of email archiving in museums. I chaired a session a few years ago at MCN and found that I am not alone in my concern. Since then, things have not improved. In fact, one might say they have worsened as the volume of email continues to increase, as does its use for types of museum correspondence that are crucial for us to preserve.
The problem, simply stated, is that lack of robust archiving and retrieval for email correspondence in today’s art museums may limit the primary source materials available to future generations of students, scholars, and the public. This is an issue for directors, curators, educators, researchers, archivists, collection managers, and technology staff. While there are commercial products for email archiving, they are built to serve corporate data-retention policies, not future research and scholarship. Focused on maintaining emails for five, seven, or ten years, these products rarely are expected to retain emails indefinitely. They may have inherent limitations for our community due to their different intended contexts of use.
It is time for us to focus on this problem as a community: time that we look at what is being done to archive email in corporate settings, universities, and state and federal governments, and time we do something about a problem that has been developing in our museum community for more than 20 years.
So, I have asked Susan Chun ( http://mwconf.com/susan-chun ) and Dale Kronkright ( http://mwconf.com/GOKConservator ) to chair and organize a Museums and the Web full-day Deep Dive into this issue. We will explore previous and ongoing work in the GLAM community , examining the problem from both technology infrastructure and procedure and policy angles. We will review commercial and open source technology solutions. We will gather commercial vendors and see how their solutions match our needs. We will hear about the work being done in other spaces such as government and education. We will publish the results, and form a working group to move this issue forward, supported by the proceedings of this workshop.
I have posted an overview of the issues, as well as a link to the registration page, here ( http://mwconf.com/1ee4qIF ) . (note that this event is part of Museums and the Web 2014, but it is a separate registration; participants need not attend the whole MW 2014 conference).
Deep-Dive registration includes coffee breaks, lunch, and a special reception. You can register here ( http://mw2014.museumsandtheweb.com/registration/ ) .
We are now developing the detailed agenda and background reading list. I would love to hear your suggestions and comments to ensure we don’t miss anything important. We are also looking for participants for lightning talks on desired use cases or horror stories or top wishes for functionalities related to email archiving. To further the discussion we have created a Google Group ( http://mwconf.com/19k0Rhz ) for email archiving in museums.
Please forward this announcement to prospective attendees and post to lists as appropriate.
Looking forward to seeing you at this MW Deep Dive on April 1st, 2014.
Museums and the Web
In this, the concluding post in my series on history spaces, I want to take up the hardest question of all — how we might find the physical spaces we need to take the sort of creative and new approaches to digital history, online education, and undergraduate research I’ve advocated for here.
I think it’s fair to say that few, if any, of our institutions have extra space lying around near our departmental offices that they would be willing to let us have, retrofit, and repurpose. And even if such spaces were just sitting there waiting to be used in new and different ways, it’s probably unlikely that a history department would get to call first dibs. We’re more likely to lose out to our colleagues in the STEM disciplines, the business school, or other programs that bring in larger enrollments and more external funding.
That being the case, all we have left to work with are our departmental spaces themselves. Unfortunately, if your department is anything like mine, the way your offices are set up right now doesn’t really lend itself to developing new and exciting spaces for student/faculty collaboration. Which leaves us with only one really viable alternative. To get new spaces that will serve us well over the coming decades, we’re going to have to give up something, and that something is going to have to be our private faculty offices.
Yes, I know that to even suggest that a professor give up his/her private office is about as heretical as anything I could possibly suggest. But before you click away to something less likely to elevate your blood pressure, hear me out.
Let’s all be honest for just a minute. Raise your hand if every one of your colleagues uses his/her office for more than 20 hours per week every week. Anyone? No? I didn’t think so. The fact is, every history department in the United States has plenty of office space that is used less than 20 hours per week — much of it for less than 15 hours. And when they are in use, what do we do in our offices? Most of us — not all, I grant, but most — use our offices primarily for prepping our classes, meeting with students, grading, and catching up on email. Very few historians I know do significant research and writing in those departmental offices. That work, as I suggested in my first post in this series, mostly takes place in archives, libraries, or at home.
So, if we have all this space that is being used less than half time, there are two possible alternatives for how we might reconfigure our office spaces to make them into what we want. The first alternative is, in some ways, the simplest — shared offices. Bob, who teaches MWF this semester has the office those days, and Stan, who teaches TR, has it the two other days.
But what about my books???
Trust me, I know. I too love my books and just sitting in my office looking at them makes me happy. But, since we’re being brutally honest here, how about this as a solution to your books. You get to keep every book that you’ve taken down off the shelf in the past 18 months. All the rest have to go home. In my case, that would open up something like 70 percent of my shelf space. Maybe more if I’m being really honest.
The second alternative, and the one that would have to require some serious re-thinking of how we work in our departments, is to move to an open floor plan — no, not cubicles — where individual workspaces are surrounded by offices that can be used for private meetings, project work, or private calls. Almost every other industry in the United States has moved to open floor plans and higher education just can’t be so special, so exceptional, that it couldn’t work for us as well.
Industries where professionals have to engage in creative, intellectual work have found ways to make open floor plans successful and report that collaboration among colleagues, general employee happiness, and overall productivity have gone up rather than down. This image is from the offices of Perkins+Will, an architectural firm in Atlanta, Georgia with a substantial higher ed practice. The main common space shown here holds dozens of workspaces for the architects and is ringed by glassed in offices that are used for various ad hoc purposes — the kinds of purposes I have been describing in my earlier posts. And, you’ll note, everyone has a window. I don’t know about you, but I certainly prefer natural light over florescent tubes.
If the very idea of giving up your private office hasn’t sent you away yet, try this experiment. Make a simple sketch of the total office space your department occupies. Then think carefully about the kinds of new spaces you’d like to have. Do you want a maker lab? Do you want group work spaces for students taking online courses? Do you want a “history lab” where you, several colleagues, graduate and undergraduate students can all work together on long term research projects? How about a new classroom that your department controls and that houses the technology, cartons of artifacts, or whatever, that you’d like to have available all the time?
If you were to halve the number of private offices (option #1, shared offices) that your department has, how much space would that free up? Would it be enough for the cool new spaces you envision? Or, if you were to move to an open floor plan like the one pictured above (option #2), how much space would that free up?
You might object to the whole idea I’ve laid out over the past few days on the basis of pessimism about your institution’s willingness to invest in reconfigured department space. Before you do, it’s worth sitting down with whoever is in charge of your campus spaces — an architect, a space planner, a facilities director — and just have a conversation with them. I can say that all across the United States people who fill those roles at colleges and universities are engaged in a very interesting and dynamic conversation about how campus buildings need to be retrofitted to meet the learning needs of future students and the research needs of future faculty. See if your campus is a member of the Society for College and University Planning. If so, then someone on campus has been at least partly connected to these conversations.
If so, you may just be surprised to find that you have a receptive audience, maybe even a willing partner, especially if you go in an offer up something — the footprint of your department — in exchange for something new and exciting.
The alternative, I’m sorry to say, is for us to sit in our offices, with our books, lamenting that those STEM people keep getting all the good spaces on campus.
I’m at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association this weekend and yesterday I attended a panel discussion of the recent American Academy of Arts & Sciences report, “The Heart of the Matter” that discusses the future of the humanities and social sciences in the United States. One of the panelists, I’m pretty sure it was Claire Potter, suggested that one reason our colleagues in the STEM disciplines seem to be more visible on campus is that they do their work in big spaces — labs, workshops, and so on — spaces that include other colleagues, graduate students, and undergraduates. The speaker then urged historians to think big, by which she meant big projects we could do that would similarly involve many people.
We already do that here at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, where we have dozens and dozens of people working on various projects, large and small, spread out across half a floor in one of our campus research buildings. But we’re one of only a few history departments around the country that have such large scale research and production spaces and almost all of those that exist are engaged in digital work. Digital work at this scale is not for everyone, but historical research is, at least if by everyone we mean historians and their students.
In my second post in this series I suggested that we need to start thinking about research, teaching, and learning as shared endeavors rather than something that we as the experts transmit to our students in our classrooms and in our cramped offices. Such a vision of the future of history education fits very nicely with the push across the United States for substantial expansion of undergraduate research opportunities. According to the Council on Undergraduate Research, more than 900 colleges and universities have signed on as members of the Council and more than 10,000 faculty, staff, and students have joined as well. I’m quite certain that within a decade these numbers will have increased substantially. Undergraduate research is just too attractive both as a pedagogical tool and as a marketing strategy.
For historians this should be a no-brainer.Every history curriculum I’ve examined has a research methods course, a required research seminar, or some similar focus on undergraduate research. It’s just what we do.
But while we’re very good at giving our students a chance to engage in authentic historical research, we’re not very good at doing that in a “big” way as suggested by yesterday’s speaker. Instead, we generally reproduce the binary expert/novice model and just about the only time research that is anything like the shared endeavor so common to the sciences occurs is when we hire an undergraduate to do some research for us.
What if we took yesterday’s speaker seriously, though, and went big? What kinds of historical research projects could we design that would span several years, would attract external funding, and would engage undergraduates, graduate students, and colleagues in collaborative knowledge production and meaning making? I can think of several such possibilities right off the top of my head and I’m sure that with a few minutes reflection, you could too.
But if we are going to go big, we need some space for that to happen — space where people can sit around tables and collaborate, where some archival files can be stored, maps can be unrolled, objects can be locked up and then later brought out for examination, careful analysis of sources can happen, where all the things we do as historians can take place, can be shared, and can result in something much bigger and more immersive than the expert/novice binary can every provide.
Any such space we build should be visible from the street, the hallway, or the campus quad. Other students, those not part of what we’re up to in that cool space, should be able to peer inside and ask, “Hey, what’s going on in there?” Because if they do, they might just think to ask more about being a history major. And with the number of high school seniors set to decline over the coming decade, anything we can do to attract a few more our way is to the good.
Tomorrow, in my final installment in this series, I will tackle the thorniest question of all — how we can get the kinds of spaces we want. Be prepared for a post that will make you a little queasy.
In my first post in this series I suggested that there were three main areas where we, as historians, should start thinking creatively about our departmental spaces and how they will or won’t serve us and our students well as we move forward in the coming decade. In the second post I laid out a series of recommendations for spaces that will help us take better advantage of the opportunities digital history offers us.
If your institution is anything like mine (or like most of the ones I read about and visit), you are being asked to think about how you might incorporate more online and/or hybrid courses into your curriculum. In our case here at George Mason University these conversations are being driven both by a genuine sense that we need to be part of the online delivery of educational content, but also by a space crunch that is only going to become more acute with each passing semester. Whatever the pressures or inducements are at your institution, it’s almost a given that you are hearing something from somewhere on campus about online, online, online.
When we talk about spaces and online education (under which I’m including hybrid courses that blend online and face to face instruction), there are both physical and virtual spaces to consider. I’m on record in many places as not liking BlackBoard or really any other commercially available learning management system (LMS), but I will admit that for many instructors, these open the box and use systems make a lot of sense if only because they are institutionally supported and relatively easy to use. I think they impose a particular set of pedagogical assumptions on the instructor, which is why I don’t use them, but for history departments that want to create virtual learning spaces quickly, the use of a commercial LMS may be the simplest option.
What I’m more concerned with in this series of posts, however, is the physical spaces we control — to the degree we do control them — in our departmental offices. If we are going to do online right, we and our students have to have easy access to two kinds of physical spaces — those that can be used for the production of online historical resources, and those that students can use when consuming those resources. For advice on the first of these spaces, I’d refer you to my prior post, in which I discuss what a digital production space might look like. For more on spaces for students engaged in learning online, read on.
I think educators enamored of online education cling to one really big mistaken assumption when it comes to student learning with online resources. Yes, it is likely that many students will sit quietly by themselves watching videos, working their way through problems, doing research, and interacting with other students enrolled in the same course. But does it have to be that way? Is this face-glued-to-laptop mode of learning the best use of online educational tools? After all, if that’s the way students are going to take our courses, then we don’t need our campuses at all, now do we? They can just sit at home, in Starbucks, or wherever, and consume our curricula all by their lonesome selves. Think of the money we’d save if we shut down all our classroom buildings for good.
What if, instead, we created learning spaces in our departments dedicated to students taking online courses? Such spaces could be smallish, meaning large enough for a couple or a few students, and wired, so that the students can all watch the same screen simultaneously, but have enough bandwidth to work independently on their laptops/tablets. The image to the right is from the Hunt Library at N.C. State University that opened last year and shows one of many such possible configurations of a space where students can work together, whether as part of an online course, or while planning a group presentation, or whatever.
If our students had such spaces and we designed our online learning opportunities to encourage them to work together in such spaces (or in their dorms, or a Starbucks), what could the learning outcomes be and how would those outcomes be different that what might be achieved in a face-glued-to-laptop mode of online course design? Because some of the very best historical work is the result of collaborative endeavor — showing drafts to friends, presenting to colleagues, etc. — it seems to me that it is incumbent on us to think more carefully about designing online learning around the kinds of collaborations we value in our own work. In that way we help to model a mode of knowledge production that we engage in ourselves. And we give them a reason to engage with our curriculum in our department, where faculty and other students might join in, be available to answer questions, or take part in the production of new knowledge as part of the kind of shared endeavor I discussed in yesterday’s post.
That alone would seem to offer a very good reason why even online students might want to be on our campuses rather than taking courses from online competitors.
In my previous post in this series I argued that we need to think critically about the physical spaces that make up our departments as we look forward into the coming decade. One of the main reasons why I think it’s worth trying to do something about the shape and form of the typical history department is that our departmental spaces are one of the few spaces on campus that we have much to say about.
Sure, we are sometimes consulted about classroom design, or about “learning commons” spaces in the library. But those spaces belong to others. To the degree that our departmental spaces belong to us, we at least have the opportunity to reimagine how they might best serve our needs and the needs of our students going forward from where we are today.
The first possible reimagining of a departmental space I want to throw out there is one that addresses the growing importance of digital in the history curriculum, but also in the work we do as scholars. The standard history department space of the long hallway of professor offices in no way facilitates the kind of collaborative work that is at the heart of digital historical work (and the digital humanities in general). Although digital tools certainly make it possible to collaborate with colleagues across great distances, our experience at the Center for History and New Media, and the experience of colleagues at digital humanities centers around the world, is that there is no substitute for a team of scholars (or students) sitting around a table, throwing out ideas, working through difficult coding challenges, etc.
Therefore, if we are going to do digital right in our departments, we need to create collaborative spaces where the making of digital history can happen.
That making can take many forms. It could be a “maker space” like the ThinkLab at the University of Mary Washington, which is the kind of space where, to quote Audrey Watters, the focus can be on “play and creativity and exploration.” In such a space, students and faculty can begin to play around with the basic assumptions of digital history, can hack things together or apart, and can begin to create new forms of knowledge representation that can be shared across a variety of media.
Another such space that can be a model for what we need in history departments is the Design Lab 1 space at the University of Michigan, where students and faculty are urged to “drop in, start something.” This space was designed by a small group of students and faculty members from several colleges who wanted to lure in fellow travelers and curious others to start making things. According to Matthew Barritt and Linda Knox, who have written about DL1 in Planning for Higher Education (42/1, October–December 2013), “Gradually, the room developed into a multifaceted learning environment with a distinctive cultural character representative of its members.”
Imagine what if would be like if, in a history department, we made a space that nurtured “a distinctive cultural character” that was representative of our discipline and its future potential in the digital age? Such a space would invite students and colleagues in, encourage them to work together, and would give them tools to play around with notions of how the past ought to be represented in media beyond the book and the academic journal.
But most importantly, and this is probably the biggest hurdle we’ll have to get over as historians used to doing our work the same way it’s been done for more than a century or two, it will have to be a space where research, learning, and and the production are understood to be a shared endeavor. The spaces we inhabit today reinforce the notion that these three central activities of any history department are top down endeavors, where experts transmit their knowledge to novices. To be successful in a world where digital matters, we’re going to have to accept that some, if not a good bit, of what we will be doing should be built on a different — a truly collaborative — notion of teaching, learning, and research.
Then we just have to build, or more likely retrofit, spaces where that collaboration can actually happen.
Close your eyes. Now, visualize a college or university history department. Maybe the one you work in, or perhaps the one you studied in as an undergraduate. Or if you weren’t a history student, one you visited at some point in your life.
I bet I can tell you what it looks like, floating there in your mind. There is a hallway. Maybe a long hallway. With lots of posters and flyers tacked up. And a sign that says “Department of History.” You walk in and find a receptionist and a bunch of faculty mailboxes. Maybe a printer or a copier. And up and down the hall are doors, almost all of them closed, with cartoons, announcements, and other ephemera of faculty lives taped on those doors. A few of the doors are open, so you peek in and you see books. Lots of books. Some of the offices are neat and tidy, others are pretty messy. Almost all of them are small.
You might wonder what sorts of intellectual work takes place in those offices. Research? Writing? Collaboration with colleagues in other states or countries? Probably some grading too. Those offices can be interesting and inviting, or so messy that they are a little scary, but they tend to fit our notions of what a professor’s office looks like, even if the work taking place there often doesn’t. Too often what happens there is all about just trying to stay on top of email or campus committee work. And grading. Plenty of grading. Research does happen, but most of that is across an Ethernet or wireless connection these days.
History departments around the country are of a piece with this description because they’re artifacts of the way the professoriate in most universities has developed – the professor as semi-independent contractor, who has a campus office that is his/her base of operations for teaching and research. Those offices are places to meet with students and colleagues, but only rarely are the location of serious, sustained intellectual work. That part of our professional lives mostly takes place elsewhere, most often at home, but also in libraries, archives, in the field, or in a coffee shop with a good wireless connection.
So what? Why worry about our physical spaces when we have so many other issues on our plates? After all, we’ve muddled along with this physical model of history departments for more than a century. Why not just stay the course, or at least ask for a bigger office, preferably with a window?
I can think of several reasons why right now, today, historians need to be not only thinking critically about the kinds of spaces we’re in, but also advocating as loudly as possible for change in those spaces. At the top of my list are three prominent contenders: the growing importance of digital in the history (and humanities) curriculum; the now seemingly ubiquitous pressure to incorporate more online or hybrid course options into our curricula; and the growing importance of undergraduate research in college curricula more generally. If we don’t press hard for changes in the spaces we have – the typical history department you imagined – we’re going to have a difficult time making any headway in either of these two emerging areas of our endeavors, both with undergraduate and graduate students.
Over the next several days, while historians from across the country and around the world are assembled here in Washington, D.C., for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, I’m going to explore our history spaces, and how we ought to begin thinking about changes in those spaces to help us prepare for the teaching, learning, and research environment we’ll find ourselves in in the coming decade.
I’ve previously taken up the issue of spaces and learning in this blog, and my series this week is certainly inspired, in part, by the thinking I did on this subject back in November 2012. But that thinking was about classrooms. This series is more about our departmental spaces — spaces that I believe will be more central to our success in years to come than we currently give them credit for.
Briefly - Wakako gave me (actually us) a FitBit for Christmas. This is a great product if you are (like me) motivated by data to take action. While I appreciate the device design (small but functional), I really like the thought that has gone in to the data presentation in the dashboard. The displays of the key variables are clean and yet subtle enough to reward interaction by revealing additional dimensions.
Information is Beautiful is a thought provoking labour of love by one of the first true data journalists, David McCandless. It is a simply structured collection of graphical interpretations of a variety of interesting statistics, factoids and opinions. It is compelling in its ability to provoke exclamations of surprise at the relationships between facts (e.g. the financial crisis costing us almost four times more than the expected total cost of the west's adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan) as well as generating respect for the creativity and design that has gone in to presenting the information.
That being said, the book also illustrates the very tricky position of a data journalist (or whatever we eventually call those individuals who render 'information' visually). Visualization of data in the form of graphics and the expression of facts, opinions, processes, etc. in the form of information visualizations is, essentially, a new language. As consumers of this new language, we have to place a large amount of trust in the translator.
As is appropriate for a book aimed more at the coffee table than the academic library, Information is Beautiful comes with no explanation of the graphical idioms used. Nor does it come with any summary of conclusions or discussion of the implications drawn from the data or the visualization. It is more like the glossy book of fabulous beaches from around the world which contains little or no indication of where these places are or what is just out of sight, or lurking behind the scene. This is, in my opinion, a grave oversight.
For example, the first piece presents a number of types of spending (e.g. defence budgets, foreign aid payments, etc.) and compares them - via the cleverly engineered positioning of a page turn - with the cost of 'the financial crisis' (which I assume is the most recent such event). Here the intended implication is clear - the financial crisis cost a lot more than all that other stuff that you think is costing us a lot. But what is the scope of all the other stuff? The defence budgets for the US, China, the UK, Saudi Arabia and India are presented - are these the largest budgets? If so, what percentage of all defense budgets do they represent? Are there other events which provide more context (e.g. other financial meltdowns, the 'cost' of a world war, the cost of other wars). It is clear that the auther has selected the variables being compared with the recession, but without knowledge of the selection criteria it is hard to know either the intended spin, or how meaningful the conclusion that the reader is lead to might be.
The second graphic - an exploration of the values and opinions of left and right leaning political positions - suffers in a similar way from a lack of context. The graphic, for example, appears to make the statement 'right leaning governments don't interfere with [the] social lives [of their citizens]'. What are we to make of this? Is this the opinion of the author? Or is it somehow a statement derived from one of the sources quoted at the bottom of the image (wikipedia, britannica.com, etc.)? As there are a number of sources, is this a consensus or is it an amalgam of the information in these sources?
McCandless presents some statistics on the structure of rape reports, prosecutions and convictions in England and Wales. I've approximated the visualization below:
Overlapping circles evoke the common concept of the venn diagram. However, here the semantics would appear to indicate that Prosecutions include rapes that are not reported, and that Convictions are exclusively obtained for non-reported rapes. I can't make sense of that.
McCandless often uses Google's Insights tool to make observations about the relative importance of various concepts. This type of analysis requires some amount of preparation for the reader. These graphs have no vertical axis label or units. Google labels the y-axis as 'interest over time' and provides a reasonable amount of explanation about the graphs and how to interpret them, including:
A downward trending line means that a search term's popularity is decreasing. It doesn't mean that the absolute, or total, number of searches for that term is decreasing.
In other words, a peak doesn't necessarily mean that there is more absolute interest - it could just as easily indicate that there is a reduced amount of interest in some other topic which therefore takes away mass from the denominator. Quite possibly the conclusions that can be drawn from these comparative time series are reasonable where there are differences between the trends (this may not be the case for compared series that show correlated peaks).
In terms of colour palette, McCandless is clearly from the Wired circa 2000 school - a school which embraces challenging colour schemes (such as white characters on a yellow background - see 'Lack of Conviction') and where the semantics of colours often trumps the contrast (for example, using a range of similar colours in a legend to a graphic leaving the reader to guess which blob goes with which meaning - see 'Most Successful Rock Bands').
Overall, this is a fascinating book. It has received popular coverage in the media and I'm sure it continues to sell well all over the globe. As a community of readers, we have to become data literate so that we can consume this type of content with the same critical eye as if we were reading the statements in dry text. It is not the information that is beautiful per se, it is the presentation of the information. I feel that this book would be far more useful if it contained a preface of some sort helping the reader to understand this new language, to educate them in the skills required to draw insights, but also to question the translation.
A while back, I wrote for some time on this blog about 'data engines' - search engines dedicated to online (statistical) data sets. These included
It is fascinating to see how many of these (almost all) are still in business and how rich their online experiences and product suites have become.
Now, there is another site to add to the list of data engines: Quandl.Quandl offers search over 8 Million data sets. A search brings up a results page with a list of data sets, related topics and relevant sources. For example, a search for 'french unemployment' brings up the following:
From here, the user can drill down to a specific data set and get the usual interactions with time series graphs, downloading of data sets, etc. The graphing tool allows a number of modifications (e.g. raw data, % change, etc.).
There isn't much on the site about the history of the company, but the wayback machine tells me that the root URL was first archived in April 2012. Whois tells me the domain was registered in 2012.
Related articles Fairwell to d8taplex.com Zanran - A Search Engine for Graphs
The original proposition of a web search engine was to help you find the answer to your information need in a page or site on the web: if someone has already solved your problem, let us help you find their solution.
There are still many search scenarios where this is the expectation of the users. One that comes (frequently) to mind is finding solutions to coding issues or API usage on coding forums and question answering sites like StackOverflow.com.
However, there is a relatively new class of queries for which search engines like Bing and Google provide satisfaction immediately. For example, a query like 'who wrote To Kill a Mocking Bird' produces the following results:
There are many other examples of this type of direct question answering.
The question is - how will user expectations change and how will it impact the long tail of sites on the web. For example, the following query does not yet produce a direct answer in any search engine 'How much is 1 pound from 1811 worth in current money?' (a question a daughter might ask a father when watching a period drama on the beeb). A search engine can, however, and will provide a link to a site which can answer the question (e.g. Measuring Worth).
I would argue that this is directly where we are headed.
Related post: Did Web Search Kill Artificial Intelligence?
Last night I shutdown d8taplex.com. This was a site that I used to demonstrate a number of experimental systems that I'd been playing with. These included: