Data visualisation: from how the web links, to how it thinks

Sometimes a healthy dose of pure tech can do you the world of good. That’s why I listened to a Digital Planet podcast on the way into work this morning, and found myself listening to Claudio Albanese, a physicist specialising in the use of high-end graphics cards to create massive financial market models.

Then, this morning, the BBC tech page features a story on holograms. It seems they could ‘soon’ (that word always make me suspicious) be used for medical procedures. This draws inevitable comparisons with the famous Star Wars “Help me Obi Wan, you’re my only hope” scene but I do hope they manage to make it less flickery and grainy, especially if they’re operating on me.

Two graphics stories in one day brought to mind work I used to do as a designer of a financial markets system, and the possibility of graphical representations of social media.

I used to work on the MarketTerminal service at KTS. I never ceased to be fascinated at the idea that someone, somewhere was making a trade and a fraction of a second later I could see it on the screen. When the markets were racing, so did the MarketTerminal screen. Here’s an animated GIF I put together of it working some time ago:

So that was a form of graphically representing a ‘society’ of data. Isn’t this what the web is? We’ve all seen beautiful graphics showing the web’s structure, but with social media we’re seeing the rise of the semantic web and, with it, a more fluid, dynamic system. We’re less concerned with how the web links, and more with how it thinks.

Along with this come more fluid representations. We Feel Fine is frankly beautiful, and well worth waiting for the applet to download. By grabbing random sentences from the web containing the words ‘I feel’, it shows emotions floating around in a notional ’emotiosphere’. Click one to pluck a random emotion from the air and read it. In the same way financial systems show trades that have actually just been made, you know that someone somewhere is feeling that way right now. You can also analyse by demographic, to see what men or women are feeling, and when.

Digg has some cool stuff too. Just go through their set of tools -Pics, Arc, BigSpy, Stack and Swarm – to see what people are digging, and when. They’re all fascinating to watch, but I think Swarm is my favourite. You see a semantic web emerge before your eyes.

If you really want to recreate R from VR, look no further than Photosynth. I wrote about it a while ago and it still makes my jaw drop. Set it to work on a set of photos and it will piece them together to recreate a scene. So it can hunt around for photos of Notre Dame on Flickr, and rebuild the cathedral from any and every angle. To my mind this could confirm the hypothesis that ‘everything that can be digital, will be‘. Indeed, you take that further: ‘everything that can be social, will be’.

Are these gimmics? Quite possibly. I can probably analyse Digg stories more effectively if they’re not floating around on my screen. Do we really need Photosynth for assembling 3D representations of medical data? (even its creator is reticent when asked to comment on practical uses for his software). Even the holograms aren’t instantaneous, it seems. Bad luck for you if the operation takes a sudden unexpected turn.

But they do look great. There must be scope for using these ideas for promotions of some type. Put it this way: if they make me go ‘wow’, then they must do other people too. If I remember them, other people will. And I get the feeling that if I don’t think up an imaginative use for this kind of thing in communications, someone else will!

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