Information Design Watch

July 28, 2011, 12:58 pm

Hello Spatial Humanities, We’ve been Waiting for You

By Henry Woodbury

Patricia Cohen at The New York Times has an interesting article on the “spatial humanities,” the idea of using geographic information systems to reveal the physical context of historical or even fictional events:

“Mapping spatial information reveals part of human history that otherwise we couldn’t possibly know,” said Anne Kelly Knowles, a geographer at Middlebury College in Vermont. “It enables you to see patterns and information that are literally invisible.” It adds layers of information to a map that can be added or taken off at will in various combinations; the same location can also be viewed back and forth over time at the click of a mouse.

The real joy of this feature is the portfolio of projects that accompanies the main overview. Here, for example, is a section from Ms. Knowles’ viewshed analysis of what General Robert E. Lee could actually see in the Battle of Gettysburg:

Fragment of Gettysburg Map created by Anne Kelly Knowles, Will Rousch, Caitrin Abshere and others; and National Archives, Maryland

The pale ovals represent areas that historians have previously assumed to be visible to Lee. In Ms. Knowles analysis, all the light areas of the map could have been visible, depending on tree lines.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Diagrams, Information Design, Maps, Scholarly Publishing, Visual Explanation

July 26, 2011, 6:31 pm

Dynamic Diagrams Has Moved

By Henry Woodbury

It has taken a few weeks to unpack the boxes and locate all the cables, but our new office is starting to look like a real office. We are on the second floor of 10 Davol Square, one of Providence’s beautiful 19th century brick commercial buildings.

Here is our new main conference room:

10 Davol Square Suite 200 Conference Room

And the whale mobile in the central area:

Whale Mobile

The address is:

10 Davol Square
Suite 200
Providence, RI 02903

Our phone numbers are the same.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News

July 24, 2011, 5:56 pm

Herschel and the Orreries

By Henry Woodbury

Self-taught astronomer William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus through a series of observations in the winter and spring of 1781. The discovery was widely published the following year. “Instantly,” writes Richard Holmes in his splendid history The Age of Wonder, “all orreries were out of date” (p. 105).

While Dynamic Diagrams’ digital orrery include Uranus (and Neptune), it is inaccurate in a way common to almost all maps of outer space: that of relative distance. Uranus is more than twice the distance from our sun as Saturn. The distance to the stars is ever more impossible to project. While Herschel was one of the first astronomers to conceive of deep space, not even he guessed at its vastness. In a footnote Holmes writes:

No astronomer yet had the least idea of the enormous distances involved, so huge that they cannot be given in terms of conventional ‘length’ measurements at all, but either in terms of the distance covered by a moving pulse of light in one year (‘light years’), or else as a purely mathematical expression based on parallax and now given inelegantly as ‘parsecs.’ One parsec is 3.6 light years, but this does not seem to help much. One interesting psychological side-effect of this is that the universe became less and less easy to imagine visually. (Holmes’ emphasis, p. 88)

Here is a challenge to champions of visual explanation and yet I fear Holmes is right. An example can be drawn from the use of parallax to measure astronomical distances. In another footnote, Holmes writes:

As with road directions, a diagram is a much better way to explain parallax than a written sentence. But it is interesting to try…. Stellar parallax is a calculation which is obtained by measuring the angle of a star from the earth, and then measuring it again after six months. The earth’s movement during that interval provides a long base line in space for triangulation. (p. 90)

Could Pantheon Books not provide Holmes a designer? Let me try a sketch:

Stellar parallax, in concept (left), and reality (right)

The difference in angles A and B allow a simple trigonometric calculation with a baseline of about 300 million kilometers (left). However, astronomical distances are so great, the actual angles are nearly equivalent (right).

William Herschel and other 18th-century astronomers did not have the instruments to measure that difference. It wasn’t until 1832 that Thomas Henderson used parallax to calculate the distance to our closest star, Alpha Centauri. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Edwin Hubble was able to calculate distances between galaxies using the red-shift method (p. 90).

Holmes describes one other picturesque scene, a “human orrery” played by the poet John Keats as a schoolboy:

Keats did not recall the exact details, but one may imagine seven senior boy-planets running round the central sun, while themselves being circled by smaller sprinting moons (perhaps girls), and the whole frequently disrupted by rebel comets and meteors flying across their orbits. (p. 113)

One must assume that like mechanical orreries and the dD Orrery, the position of the planets was calculated in reference to the sun, not to each other.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Maps, Visual Explanation

July 21, 2011, 12:23 pm

Crowd Control and the Web

By Henry Woodbury

We all know the problem. Any open-access forum, social network, or comments venue on the Internet can easily be overrun by savage attacks and inane vulgarities. Blogger and entrepreneur Anil Dash responds with a bold claim — “This is a solved problem“:

As it turns out, we have a way to prevent gangs of humans from acting like savage packs of animals. In fact, we’ve developed entire disciplines based around this goal over thousands of years. We just ignore most of the lessons that have been learned when we create our communities online. But, by simply learning from disciplines like urban planning, zoning regulations, crowd control, effective and humane policing, and the simple practices it takes to stage an effective public event, we can come up with a set of principles to prevent the overwhelming majority of the worst behaviors on the Internet.

Dash follows with a list of concrete actions responsible content owners need to take to manage the crowd. It all starts with having real people moderate the content. Dash links to Robert Niles at Online Journalism Review, who states flatly: “If you can’t manage comments well, don’t offer comments at all“.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Social Media, Technology, User Experience

July 19, 2011, 2:48 pm

University of Southern Maine Launches New Site

By Lisa Agustin

The University of Southern Maine recently launched a redesigned site based on an information architecture developed by Dynamic Diagrams. Like many enterprise-level web sites, the USM site is not so much a single site as it is a collection of smaller sites maintained by individual departments and groups.  Content had been organized by owner (and therefore required users to know the organizational structure of the university) and a de-centralized management approach meant that architecture and design were often inconsistent across the web site.   The university planned to migrate its content to a new content management system, and recognized this as an opportunity to create a new information architecture that would improve both the end-user experience and the process for maintaining and growing its web presence.  The new site’s architecture provides users with a more intuitive and streamlined online experience by grouping related information together (e.g., all information related to specific academic degree is available from a single location), while encouraging the use of the site as a community building tool (e.g., a “social dashboard” aggregates social media activities across campus).  At the same time, the architecture’s modular approach means that content owners can focus on creating information without worrying about its location on the web site.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News

July 14, 2011, 10:23 pm

Jigsaw Africa

By Henry Woodbury

Scale is a kind of beauty. Here Kai Krause maps out the scale of the continent of Africa in comparison to a selection of the usual suspects:

Selection from True Size Africa

Click through for full-size map, more data, and editorial content (whose thesis I find entirely unconvincing).

I’m more intrigued by the effectiveness of the visualization as an informational device. The juxtaposition is what matters, not the “true size”. If you mapped the true size of Canada, the United States, Mexico, and Central America against the continent of North America the result would be entirely pointless.

What makes Krause’s map intriguing is the contrast between large countries and a continent comprised mostly of small ones. To make a North American map of equivalent interest I would replace the large land masses of Canada, the United States, and Mexico with numerous small countries (to reverse the conceit we could replace Central America with Madagascar — a number of small countries with one large). Thus, we learn about the size of the selected countries as well as the size of the continent.

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Comments (30) | Filed under: Cognitive Bias, Information Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

July 13, 2011, 4:38 pm

The Death of Blogging in One Paragraph

By Henry Woodbury

Apparently Google+ is going to end blogging once and for all. First blogging was co-opted by big media. Second, blogging was trumped by short-form social media. In this framework the death of blogging can be summed up in one paragraph:

Remember blog rolls? Looking back, we can say they were the original Facebook Friend lists, or Twitter Followers, or Google+ Circles.

In other words, the network is more important than the content.

Facebook and Twitter and Google, each in their own way, make networking very easy. But when everyone is networked, what will everyone do next? Don’t say content. Content is hard.

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Comments (3) | Filed under: Social Media, Technology