The New Cartographers #1, Pedro M Cruz
Pedro M Cruz created recently a Project related with the visualization of Traffic in Lisbon. His project lets you see the city waking up through the motion of traffic on its main arteries and fading away towards the end of the day. It also shows you which are the streets with swifter traffic, green lines, and the ones with traffic jam, the red ones.
His visualization choices, reminded me of images representing neuronal circuits. I do not know if it was an intentional choice but that got me to want to find out more about his work. This is the result of an interview I did with Pedro where he talks about his muses and his ideas about information visualization.
I came across your work on a series of blogs/websites about information visualization and the first thing that came to my mind was a project of a company called Stamen design which presented their project cabspotting at OFFF some years ago. So I was wondering if they were influential/inspiring to you while you were thinking about your work. I was also curious to know who are your muses?
Well, honestly I wasn’t aware of the existence of the cabspotting project until I developed the first videos. But yes, the principle is the same. The main inspiration for the traffic of Lisbon videos was the flight patterns’ work from Aaron Koblin. More than that, the visual strategy is the same: attaining visual statistics by working with the trails of the vehicles/airplanes. Therefore I knew from the beginning that the visualization model wasn’t new. What is new is the city (it haven’t been done with Lisbon before) and the visual metaphor used with the clot’s visualization – circulatory problems as an allusion with urban metabolism.
On visualization that I find innovative in this thematic traffic mapping and visualization is the Cascade on Wheels project that explores new visual representation models for traffic intensity as well as entertaining exploration tools for the same data (e.g. data sonification).
My muses and references spread trough different fields. Starting with Jonathan Harris (with his beautifully well executed visualizations of the blogosphere – We Feel Fine, or using data from personal experiences – The Whale Hunt ), through Chris Harrison (pretty good visualization artifacts, with perhaps an arguably insight but good exploration of visualization models), Aaron Koblin, Ben Fry, Stewart Smith with his contribution for the Terre Natale project (insightful, beautifully executed and immersive visualizations concerning migratory fluxes on the planet), Fernanda Viegas, Martin Wattenberg and closing with Stefanie Posavec that is more into an information aesthetics approach rather than visualization with hers Literary Organism and the booklet for OK GO. I think too that Manuel Lima has an important theoretical contribution to give to the field (e.g. his Information visualization manifesto). On the more visual and generative side we have Robert Hodgin and Karsten Schmidt. I can also find inspiration on the work with interactive installations done by Multitouch Barcelona, Chris O’Shea, UnitedVisualArtists and rAndom International. On the web my references are Jason Santa Maria and Information Architects (iA).
Do you think that doing map visualizations, visualizations that use the APIs of Microsoft Bing or Google maps are turning into some kind of a fetish?
They are an already established trend. They can be a precious tool for mapping and displaying adequate data. Unfortunately I haven’t seen new forms of effective and polished forms of visual representations, but neither have they to exist for certain kinds of data (I mean, since when do heat maps exist? Since the middle of the 19th century when John Snow mapped the deaths from cholera in central London?)
Your visualization is based on one month of traffic information of 1534 cabs condensed in a 24h day. Were the drivers involved in your project at all, I mean were they aware that they were participating on a project or did you work with a database that you collected with no involvement of the taxi drivers?
The database was collected by the CityMotion project in the framework of MIT Portugal. The data used for Lisbon’s visualizations is from a company (FROTCOM) that provides a monitoring service to general vehicle fleets. Therefore we are not looking only at taxis, neither at particular vehicles. We are looking mainly at distribution companies. And that’s interesting as well.
I was listening to an interview with Paul Theoroux (travel writer) where he said: “Maps are the answer, the key to travel”, and he added “the great explorers, the great navigators, were people who made maps they didn’t write books necessarily, but they went and cross the world to make a map of the world and they came back with a map, not necessarily a description of a place and they presented the king with a map and said: “this is my journey”. Do you feel like an explorer? To whom do you think it makes sense to present these kinds of maps? What are, in your opinion, the big differences of today’s visualization maps (like yours) and the maps that illustrate Vancouver’s explorations, for instance, on the northwest coast of the USA and Canada?
For me the process of making visualizations of large quantities of data is always an exploration, discovering new methods to synthesize information, analytically and visually, and finding a way to transmit the insights of the beauty of data. I love to produce visualizations to the general public. That’s because I have to pay attention to aesthetics and at the same time I am able to express myself with the data when I choose small factors as the thickness of a line, a color scheme or the behavior of an element. I think that nowadays the author is able to set a strong tone in his artifacts, in contrast with old maps where the expressiveness (that also exists) was generally more subtle. Nowadays we also have new means to convey a story. When a map tells a story we can dive into it, explore it and even choose between several representation forms or exploratory methods.
Not so long ago I was reading an article on FT about megacities, cities that Saskia Sassen, the Dutch sociologist, called the “global cities”, which asserted its power not through empire but through economic influence. With the amount of data that we are all producing: when we use our chip enabled cards to travel within the city, when we play on foursquare or gowalla or even foodspoting, when we tweet, etc etc etc do you think that we are building metadatacities? Whose power will be asserted by the amount of information shared and processed?
Ah! That’s a very interesting concept. Aren’t already some metadata-islands on the web? When they interconnect, there will be metadatacities. It seems very easy to have ultimate supremacy over a metadatacity if you have the right privileges to manipulate the data in a larger scale. In the end the power will be from who can break the rules in those cities, but within the rules I don’t think that it can be different from what we are used nowadays. More than that, the magnitude of that power will be related to the kind of information that we choose to insert in that city.
Do you know the work of Esther Polak? Her work has been related with the possibilities that GPS tracks offers in creating personalized mappings. Do you found any connection between your type of projects and hers?
Unfortunately I don’t know her work. But in the context of the CityMotion project there is some work in the same direction (e.g. morphing a city from the perspective of a particular or particular kind of driver – perceived distances).
Lastly, how do you think the field of Information Visualization is going to evolve?
The information visualization field evolves, in my opinion, accordingly with two main factors: data and visual trends. I think that information visualization is a field that goes with the trends because I envision it as a mean of communication with a broad audience. The visualization of networks is a big trend that won’t disappear so soon. The challenge now is to explore new immersive and interactive ways to get more involved with the visualization artifact, enabling evolving insights and journeys within the data. Other social phenomena that could arise from the popularity of information visualization could be perhaps some kind of data guerrilla, where citizens collect themselves the data from some workflow that it’s controlled by some entity with a non disclosure policy for data. If that workflow has a special relevancy for the life of a certain group of citizens, they’ll acquire and collect their data. I’m speaking for myself.