Stamen brings artistry to data visualization — and wins Cooper Hewitt Design Award

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Forget old-school bar graphs and pie charts. Stamen shows that depicting data can be an art form.

New technologies generally produce new art forms. That’s certainly true of today’s mapping and data collection technologies. They’ve given rise to the medium of data visualization, or the visual depiction of data to render it comprehensible and accessible.

One design company, Stamen, has elevated data visualization to an art form. The San Francisco-based company has just been recognized by the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York with a 2017 National Design Award for Interaction Design.

Listen to an interview with Eric Rodenbeck and Stamen co-owner Jon Christensen here, or read on for more, below.

Stamen was founded by Eric Rodenbeck in 2001, because, he says, “the thing that I’ve just seen over the last 15 years of running the shop is just the amounts of data that we’re both collecting and harvesting and then also broadcasting… can be a kind of mysterious thing, that can be a frightening thing, a complicated thing. And what we saw was a need to be able to communicate really clearly and cleanly about that.”

Jon Christensen, left, and Eric Rodenbeck, right, in studio at KQED, taping an interview with DnA. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Stamen uses tools from animation to interactive, 3-D maps to turn information into visual stories that range from the utilitarian to the poetic and existential. Examples include a single day of trading on the NASDAQ, sea level rise, immigration patterns, and coalition casualties and their locations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The projects can also be whimsical, as in the case of “Facebook Flowers,” a visual depiction of how an image spreads virally after George Takei posts it on Facebook. They’re also known for Atlas of Emotions (more about this below).

Their work elicits delight — and questions. How do they determine the visual form of a morass of numbers? How do they hit the sweet spot between information and art? And why are maps so popular right now, especially when fewer and fewer people can actually read a map?

According to Jon Christensen, co-owner of Stamen (also professor at UCLA and editor of Boom, a magazine about California), “we are awash in a sea of data and… it’s just crucial that we find new ways to understand our world, to make sense of our world… and data visualizations and maps are a key way to do that.

With this profusion of apps — the maps that we have on our phones — there’s a growing love for beauty in maps. And that’s something that Stamen has really worked hard on for a very long time, is bringing beauty into online interactive cartography.”

One of Stamen’s better-known projects is called Atlas of Emotions, made for the Dalai Lama and based on 60 years of research by the scientist Paul Ekman. It takes five primary emotions – fear, sadness, anger, enjoyment and disgust, and their related feelings – and translates them into colorful, gently undulating circles and wavelike graphs.

So what was the point exactly of this project?

The Dalai Lama, says Christensen, saw the need for a project that would “help us better understand our emotions so that we could understand how we react and how these emotions combine in different ways and thus understand ourselves better and be able to get to a place of calm.”

Rodenbeck says this project elicited the feeling of “panic” in him, because “emotions are quite fleeting and emotions also don’t really overlap with one another. The science of emotion says that they are very discrete and distinct from one another. So we tried really hard to make it so that there wasn’t a causal relationship implied between one or the other. But that’s been one of the big challenges of the project, is that we read things with our eyes and we draw inferences from things like different sizes and things like that. What we’re trying to communicate there is that the emotions are all quite distinct from one another.”

He adds, “If I want to communicate anything about this, it’s that this is a design process. It’s partly a technical process, but it’s also very much a design process, and we think really clearly about the ways in which we want to communicate about these things… And that it’s as complex a design process as putting an ad campaign together or other strategic communications.”

The Big Glass Microphone maps the sounds captured by a five mile long fiber optic cable buried six inches underneath the campus of Stanford University. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Another of Stamen’s projects is called the Big Glass Microphone. It was commissioned by the Victorian and Albert Museum in London. And it shows a pulsating blue and yellow line in the shape of a figure 8. This somewhat conceptual project maps the sounds captured by a five-mile-long fiber optic cable buried six inches underneath the campus of Stanford University.

Rodenbeck explains: “I had become fascinated with [what] I’m calling incidental infrastructures. This idea that as things like smart cities and as the number of computers… proliferate it’s not just that all the sensors are getting smaller and that they’ll be everywhere… but that all these things actually become sensors [and]… that the building itself could start to become a sensor.

And I learned about a company named OptaSense [that has] a computer that sits at the end of a fiber optic cable… and what they do is they measure the light that’s going through those cables. But they also measure the static on those cables that comes from objects that are near them moving.

And so what you wind up with is essentially this big glass microphone… that’s being used for a really big, complex, long term project on seismic analysis. And it turns out that while you’re listening for earthquakes you can also pick up footsteps, fountains, people walking, cars, air conditioners and a lot of stuff to an incredible degree of fidelity — it’s possible to tell the difference between a Volvo and an Impreza. It’s possible to tell the difference between two different kinds of people walking.

So the idea that you essentially wired up the whole world into a giant listening device. And with the right plug in the right computer you can start to make maps that are incredibly accurate, down to the centimeter of people walking and driving, and so that seemed like a kind of strange idea and an interesting thing to think about.”

Again this raises the question: what is the takeaway from mapping these findings? And is it invasive? For Christensen, this project is intended to provoke consideration of the implications of the data that swirls around us.

[This map] can… be really creepy you know, like the whole world is listening. And we should be aware of that… I think of this project as a kind of… provocation… but at the same time… all this information can be very, very useful for us. But we want to think clearly and carefully about it, and that kind of work, whether we’re doing it for a museum or a company or a nonprofit or a university.”

Eric adds: “I’m really interested in that line between useful and terrifying. And I think it’s a line that, as you start to get into this and peek under the hood and see what people are doing with data, and see how much data we’re giving away about ourselves, it’s just becoming increasingly urgent, I think, to have visuals that can let us look at these things and let us talk about them, so that we’re not in a state of terror, but we’re in a state of being informed.”

Facebook Flowers, an excerpt from a video that diagrams the viral activity that follows George Takei sharing a picture on Facebook. The imagery reminds DnA of the alien handwriting in Arrival (image courtesy: Stamen Design.) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

What about when the underlying information is incorrect? After all, there have been data visualization projects that have gone viral but it turns out the maps were based on flawed data or flawed methodology. Rodenbeck says maps can lie just like any other medium.

“I’d say it’s the easiest thing in the world to do, is to lie with maps. This idea that there is a kind of one to one relationship between the truth and the visuals is just simply not true… If there’s a mission to the shop, it’s to increase the literacy level around maps and data visualization so that we can have a more informed conversation about them as a society,” he said.

As mentioned, new technologies produce new art forms — just think oil paint and oil paintings; printing and books; and the blend of light and chemicals and glass that enabled the art of photography. So if Stamen had to choose a Mona Lisa of data visualization, what would it be?

Rodenbeck says, “I can point you to the moment where I realized that what we were doing was communication and not just presentation of information. We were hired by CNN several years ago to put together a map of the locations of coalition fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan —  where those people died and to also map alongside that where they were from. And so we put together a map that was called Home and Away.

And it was about where they lived and where they had died. And each one of the soldiers that died had a link to their profile and there were a memorial pages and things like that. That would have done a disservice to that project had we put all those red pins on a Google map and simply covered it with dots.

And at that moment I realized that we had an obligation to be somber, we had an obligation to . . . treat this medium seriously as a communications medium because the people that were looking at it weren’t just going to be disinterested observers. . . . There was a whole range of emotional activity that people were going to engage in when they engage with these maps. . . It was about communicating appropriately and communicating in a way that we could design and from there we just kind of never looked back.”