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The Aesthetics of Conversations – Paolo Ciuccarelli

MALOFIEJ 19: Paolo Ciuccarelli presented himself as the professor and head of the visualization lab, Density Design. For some reason he started out by assuring us, that life as a professor is not as easy as you might think. I’m guessing it all depends on your ambitions, and Paolo certainly came across as a man with ambitions. Good for that, as one of Density Design’s main goals is to produce tools and software to help visualizers all over the planet in a open-source program.

He went on to present some of the projects his designlab had been working with. Even if he initially stated that it is not our job as visualizers to produce pretty shapes, I think that several of his projects did exactly that. It is however the current trend in datavisualization, so who can blame him? If you don’t think appearance you’ll never get any attention in the world of dataviz. And attention is important when you work in academic world – no attention equals no funding.

‘Digital Socialism’ presented with datadriven robots
The project I think resonated the most with people in the room was a project they did for Italian Wired about the new digital socialism. It was based on the work of Kevin Kelly and describes how people are working together to create something of value in the digital world.

Density Design were given a list of 300 websites and asked to produce a visualization. The dataset was quite simple: Every website had four variables. The interesting part was how they decided to create a robot-character built on these variables. A wise choice, as a robot attracts the readers eye as a humanoid shape without scaring them away with distorted realistic humans. (I might try the latter someday)

The robot was colored according to age – got its height from the Alexa-rating – its sturdiness depicted the financial backup behind the website and finally the head was shaped in accordance to the amount of monthly users. Too bad the VisualJournalism-website didn’t make it to their 300-list … that would have made for a rather gray skinny dwarf with a small head.

Visualizing knowledge and disagreement
But Paolo wanted to take us further than the printed world, as they now had found something more interesting to visualize: – the production of knowledge that takes place online …

As a primer he showed us how people had always shared knowledge – 100 years ago it was done via letters rather than Facebook or Twitter. In a project in collaboration with Stanford University they had researchers digging through more than 50.000 letters to show on maps, when and where influential people from the past sent and received their mail.

In all honesty: When I see maps with lines shooting back and forth in a seemingly mess and still with only a fraction of the data represented, my biggets curiosity is mostly about the usefulness of it all. You can visit the RepublicofLetters website at Stanford for more.

What they did now was initiated back in 2008, when a French social science philosopher said something like: ‘Disagreement is the main source of new knowledge’ and asked the design world to come up with methods to help visualizing knowledge and disagreement.

After Density Design had responded to the reach-out from the social sciences they have produced the Turtle-software, which Paolo then showed us. Very important to note is that this project is not meant for the normal end-user. It will take a scientific mind and very close collaboration with Paolo and colleagues to get a deeper understanding of the Turtle-visualizations of – as an example – disagreements on wikipedia-articles.

I really appreciate that Paolo wasn’t trying to sell the idea to the many infographic artists present in the room, that they should publish the visualizations, he showed us. I think data-visualization works at its finest, when used for research – to help you get new ideas of what to explore – but never as the final product.

Avoid the ‘Oscilloscope Syndrome’
Also noteworthy was the approach of Density Design when they construct user-interfaces in their visualizations. They always try to stay away from the ‘Oscilloscope Syndrome’ where the visualizations and the controls are split apart. It has to be self-working.

The final word from Paolo was another good point ‘When we talk about data we always have to deal with inaccuracy, errors, ambiguity, noise. And even if we have the perfect set of data, we should learn from people in social science. They know that numbers and figures will never really represent the phenomenon we’re looking at.’

Paolo had a hope that his work with qualitative visualizations would remind people that the world is uncertain and complex. We still need tools that can help us make sense out of complexity. He is on a quest for the Big Picture – even if it’s still in its initial stages.

A Top5-presentation at Malofiej19.