Designing in the Face of Defeat

Posted: May 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Inspiration, Talks | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I called this talk I gave for the Willem de Kooning Academy’s CrossLab night ‘New Design for a New Aesthetic’ initially, but I reconsidered that title. Not because of the person who took semantic issue with the idea of a ‘new aesthetic’, I couldn’t really care less about that. The idea that there can be a new design that addresses the issues within the New Aesthetic is just too ambitious. We cannot possibly succeed which is why I’m calling this discipline we’re engaged in: designing in the face of defeat (I blogged about this before) and it is what we will be doing for the foreseeable future.

I pre-rolled a screencapture of Aaron Straup Cope’s Wanderdrone to add ominous foreboding to the mix of design/advertising enthusiasm permeating the room. Crosslab called the night a night about Dynamic Design, which I didn’t really get, but I retook an old talk about algorithmic design but now heavily updated to incorporate current thinking about algorithms, the new aesthetic and object oriented ontology.

notlion.github.com/streetview-stereographic/#o=.022,.363,-.645,.673&z=1.623&mz=18&p=52.50029,13.41857
Our offices in Berlin-Kreuzberg

Given the fact that we as Monster Swell are a company that does a lot of stuff with maps we are affected by the fact that mapping is being turned on its head. And it’s not because there aren’t enough interesting maps, there are now more than ever before. Just to show a couple.

Eric Fischer’s Twitter Traffic Maps of various cities, here New York:
Is this the structure of New York City?

Google Hotel Finder with an isochrone projection in London:
Google Hotel Finder

Timemaps, a map of the Netherlands distorted by the amount of travel time required during various times of day:
Timemaps

But right now there is a projection inversion going on where a lot of the time we no longer project the real world onto flat surfaces and call that maps, but where we overlay maps themselves back onto reality. And what we call maps does not need to have any relation with physical reality anymore, we can map anything onto anything using any (non-)geometric form we choose.

This is mainly a consequence of us putting the internet into maps. But if you think again, the internet is not the only place where we put maps. We put the internet into pretty much everything by now.

So maps are creeping back into the real world and we get odd clashes when we try to overlay a map back onto the territory or when we try to perfectly capture a capricious world, as you can see in these Google Maps and Street View examples: 1, 2, 3, 4. I don’t know how long they will be online over at the New Aesthetic Tumblr since that has been closed by James Bridle right now.

We got QR codes to enable the machine readable world. These hardly have any real world use (just go over to the WTF QR Codes Tumblr) but they function more as cultural icons, precursors of a strange and inscrutable future.

And even more interestingly they are being used for instance by the Chinese to calibrate spy satellites. So these are maps on the earth that are being used to create better maps of the earth.

The New Aesthetic is when this kind of projection inversion happens more widely, not just in the realm of maps, but in all of the places in the world that the internet touches. By now that is nearly everything. The examples that were being collected over at the New Aesthetic Tumblr showed how the arts were picking up on this trend.

All of these things have been created by algorithms which are not as mysterious as many people make them out to be. Algorithms are how computers work and increasingly how the world works. They codify behaviour and quoting Robert Fabricant, as designers ‘behaviour is our medium’. Being a designer should entail more than a passing knowledge of and proficiency with algorithms. We are moving into a world where creative work is becoming procedural. The most important media are prescriptive and set rules for the world more than they are descriptive and depict the world.

The real problem with algorithms is that they often involve us but they are completely alien to us (in the Bogostian sense). They are operationally closed. Operational Closure means that things may work in ways that are not at all obvious to us, neither at first nor after we poke into them because any kind of sense we make of it is either partial or does not translate into our frame of reference. Algorithms get inputs and perform outputs but the way they operate on these has nothing to do with how we as humans think about the world. Think is not even the right word, but we try to relate to them from our human cognition. The machines see us, but they do not ‘see’ us in any way we would recognize as seeing and we have no idea what it is that they see.

The Machine Pareidolia experiment over at Urban Honking is a good example.

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The ability to see faces in things is a basic aspect of our visual pattern recognition. When we teach that same skill to computers we get unexpected consequences. It is the same with the flash crash on the stock market that happens in the blink of an eye without anybody really knowing what caused it. The rationales of the algorithms are opaque to us and their emergent behaviour unpredictable.

As Kevin Slavin mentioned in an interview: the more autonomous the algorithms are and the more effects they have on our daily lives, the more we may be accommodating them without realizing it.

There was this story recently that scientists have created a robot fish that is so good at mimicking the behaviour of regular fish that it can become their leader. This is what worries me. Who says we are not all following robot fish most of the time?

So that is what I think is the biggest challenge right now for designers. Try to create systems that harness the open and generative power of the internet while on the other hand remaining human and aligned with human interest. One way would be to make the internals of algorithms transparent so people can enter into an informed relationship with them.

Unfortunately there are no magic bullets for this whatever your local design visionary has been telling you. There never have been. Everything is made up of withdrawn objects that are mediated towards one another with unexpected consequences. To quote Graham Harman from the Prince of Networks:

“the engineer must negotiate with the mountain at every stage of the project, testing to see where the rock resists and where it yields, and is quite often surprised by the behaviour of the rock.”

There are no ideas that will solve all problems, there are no products that will do everything. There is only the work through which we may gain more understanding and make better things. So with that, I hope we all can do good work.


Statlas: beta release

Posted: June 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Statlas | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

It’s been some time in the making but today we are proud to do a very early beta release of Statlas, the project we have been working on these past months. The Dutch Press Innovation fund funded this project and we collaborated with Fluxility and Alexander Zeh on this version. So please do check out: Statlas

There are several similar tools out there that help you create your own map but we feel that they are not as easy as they should be and most all of them are created in Flash. Statlas is built on Polymaps and therefore fully compatible with the open web. Creating a map is a simple as painting by numbers.

Our initial explorations set us on our way to create the easiest and most generative atlas tool we could imagine. Statlas is setup to allow you to choose a group of regions and for each of those regions enter a value (numerical, color or other) to create a map coloring. That map can then be shared, printed, embeded wherever you want . But anybody can also take a public map and edit it to improve upon existing data or to express their differences with them. It is also possible to export data to CSV, use other tools to collect statistics and re-import them back into Statlas.

http://statlas.nl/

Feedback

This initial release is geared towards the Dutch context as we have been developing it with the Netherlands in mind first. We are going to quickly add more regions and we are solliciting requests for regions you may want to add. If you have ideas, requests and or Shapefiles, please send them our way so we may add them.

This is a most preliminary beta release of a functional piece of software. We are envisioning much more data heavy and live updating views in the near future, but a project of this scope can balloon too easily. We’ve heard no end of people who wanted to use it for one cause or another and we wanted to show something first. After this release we’ll see which direction is most in demand of pursuing.


Foursquare map display for Amsterdam nightlife

Posted: May 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Foursquare Map, Projects | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

For the Amsterdam UIT Bureau and I Amsterdam we created this Foursquare map designed to display nightlife activity around the Leidseplein (entertainment) area with recent checkins, specials and current mayor and photographs of a selected group of venues. We strongly believe in creating autonomous displays that take cues from the environment —in this case using Foursquare— and deliver clear actions to the audience as well as a sense that the area they are in is alive and all they have to do is go out and connect to it.

The project is live at its own URL and in an iframe on the IAmsterdam site.

http://monsterswell.com/projects/uitfoursquare/

Technically we used Foursquare’s OAuth2 API which is outstanding. To be able to share one token across all requests we employ a file based PHP cache that relays the necessary requests for us. Main technology was created in collaboration with Panman Productions.


Personal Mapping Platforms

Posted: January 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Research, Statlas | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

For the project Statlas we are looking into making a personal mapping platform for journalists. We submitted the grant proposal for this almost half a year ago and the idea had been alive for far longer (we started about this time last year).

It’s good to sea that there is a wider trend in consumer mapping platforms right when we are underway with ours. Here’s a brief survey of the ones we found during a cursory examination. There are bound to be more. If you know them, please let us know in the comments.

ArcGIS

ArcGIS has a mapping platform based probably on the ArcGIS server, a paid for cloud mapping platform.

ArcGIS - My Map

Looks nice, like a web based version of Google Maps combined with Google Earth with all the different overlays you can put on there. I tried to create a map and share it on Facebook which oddly enough did not work. The sharing, embedding and standalone map versions do look well thought out but if they don’t work they’re probably not tested well.


View Larger Map

ESRI

ESRI the company behind ArcGIS has another ‘Make a map’ tool which is a lot more restricted but because of that provides a clearer experience.

Make a Map | Free Embeddable Maps | Embed Map Web Page | Embedded Maps

This doesn’t offer a ridiculous amount of options, but it is very clear and nicely done and the sharing options are also very straight forward. An embed of that map is below:

Dotspotting

Dotspotting is Stamen‘s platform for putting dots on a map currently in its ‘SUPER ALPHA-BETA-DISCO-BALL VERSION’. As they describe it, it’s intended to make the process of visualizing city data easier, more open and more robust.

That is pretty much the same reasons we started on this road in the first place. Mapping and data literacy are necessary in web development as well as the other way around: web literacy is necessary for those that make the heavy-duty maps. The two need to meet to create the applications and ease of use we are looking for.

Dotspotting - "My Flickr Photos (Sept 2010)", a sheet of dots by straup

A script to export my Foursquare checkins in an easy way and create a sheet with those is forthcoming. Anyway, Statlas is best described as that: a way to project values onto regions and enable people to play with that dynamic.

Weet meer

Weet Meer got launched very recently in a beta release and is limitedly available up until next month. It does a decent job in displaying the statistics offered by the CBS and offers some statistical relations and tools to compare things with.

Weetmeer.nl - Aantal inwoners

That is a brief overview of what is already out there. We’re glad that we have hit a nice timing to be able to develop ours and fulfill an actual need out there: to be easily able to make maps of a set of values to a group of regions.


Statlas: Week 0

Posted: December 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Statlas | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

The technology demo of Dutchstats as presented during Hack de Overheid last year has been a nice trigger for further development along that axis. For now the project under codename Dutchstats2 —a new name and identity is forthcoming— will be underway.

nl.alper.processing.map.DrawWKT

We got the announcement a couple of weeks ago that our proposal for subsidy had been accepted. We spent December gauging interest, taking in the project and building a team that can execute this in Q1 2011. Team introductions forthcoming after we’ve kicked it off.

The Brief

The assignment is still the same one that prompted the original Dutchstats:

Given a set of values for a set of geographical regions visualize the mapping from the values to the regions in a way that is interesting, useful and pleasant.

Simple enough to be doable. Broad enough to be generally applicable.

The original Dutchstats was mainly concerned with Dutch municipalities as geographical regions and election results as values and we will be continuing along that line, but we will be looking into opening up both the values and also the geographical regions for anybody who has something to contribute to either. The idea is to create a generative atlas.

Atlas

A generative atlas mostly to see if we can give the concept of an atlas new currency in the online world.

In the Netherlands there is an atlas called the Grote Bosatlas which still is the standard atlas for everybody in and out of school. But asking people around the question: when is the last time you have even thought of an atlas, let alone got and leaved through a Bosatlas, everybody draws a complete blank. Google Maps has supplanted most of the topographical and wayfinding functionality of paper maps and atlases to the extent that it has wiped out the original concept out of people’s heads.

Multi-Map

The social geographical function of the atlas has been replaced by a ton of projects working either with or on Google Maps/Earth using GIS or placing points on the map (using location or geocoded data), Stamen’s Dotspotting is a good example of that. Besides those web centric approach there’s also a slew of closed/semi-closed mapping tools from statistical offices, government bodies etc. that are built on poor and closed technology and are limited to the task at hand (which they usually do poorly at that).

BLIK

Technology

We’re going to determine as we go the technology that we’re going to use, but the project needs to be webcentric and is allowed to be bleeding edge (though perhaps not as bleeding as the original prototype) so I hope we can avoid using Flash completely.

Depending on how much of the base components are already available (data stores, tile servers, rendering engines), we will be focusing more on the application part. But if such components are not yet available or up to par, we will be investing in building them ourselves.

Process

In our practice we believe in standing on the shoulders of giants, sharing alike and giving credit where credit is due. We will be doing this project completely in the open not because we don’t have a customer for it but because everybody is a potential customer and they should be able to see and participate from the earliest stages on.

Any software that we produce will be released under a very liberal open source license. So that anybody can use our stuff and we hope to advance the state of mapping online in our own modest amount. Also all our design research and progress will be posted to this blog in chunks of a week or a bit more (depending on our sprints).

Fully open is the only way we can imagine doing this. We hope you will join us.


Dutchstats

Posted: September 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Dutchstats | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Dutchstats is a statistical tool to compare election results and other key statistics on the municipal level for the Netherlands. It allows any value that can be mapped to a municipality to be visualized and will be released as an open source framework.

Attention: Open Data NetworkVVOJ

Process: “Dutchstats — Your personal Atlas of the Netherlands” and “Dutchstats – Je persoonlijke atlas van Nederland”

Creators: Alper Cugun, Alexander Zeh


Vervuilingsalarm

Posted: September 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Vervuilingsalarm | Tags: , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Vervuilingsalarm is an aggregator of particulate predictions for a series of measuring stations in the Netherlands. The data is scraped, aggregated, plotted and graphed and also sent out to sensor hub Pachube.

Creators: James Burke, Ton Zijlstra, Alper Cugun, Buro Pony


Silence Landscapes

Posted: September 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Silence Landscapes | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Landscapes in two and three dimensions generated from sound measurements made by artist Sarah van Sonsbeeck for her project Een Dijk van een Kust in the free-range park in Monnickendam.

Process: “Creating an audiogeography from walks through the silence” and “A Landscape Generated From Silence”

Attention: Bright.nl

Creators: Sarah van Sonsbeeck, Alper Cugun, Kars Alfrink


Travel Times

Posted: September 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Travel Times | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

A public transportation travel time map for the Netherlands inspired by the mySociety time maps.

making of video in Dutch of the above work and the data are also available.

A next version by Kars Alfrink juxtaposed the time it takes to travel by car with the time to travel by public transportation see: “The Making of a Travel-Time Map of the Netherlands” and “Download My Travel-Time Map”.

Creators: Alper Cugun, Kars Alfrink