Bringing Art to Data Visualization

For every Edward Tufte and Stephen Few telling us how data should be presented, it is a pleasure to find someone like Jonathan Harris who shows us the possibilities of data presentation. Jonathan brings a level of creativity and imagination to data visualization unlike anyone else I’ve ever seen. His bio is a little more expansive:

Jonathan Harris is an artist working primarily on the Internet. His work involves the exploration and understanding of humans, on a global scale, through the artifacts they leave behind on the Web.

I first ran across his work at a popular link to Princeton’s International Networks Archive. There I found a gallery of attractive infographics all attributed to him. He is an example showing the global tobacco trade:


Now I enjoy a densely-packed infographic as much as the next data junkid, but the masterpiece of Jonathan’s collection of interactive data-art has to be a site called We Feel Fine. The site gathers textual data from blogs and presents the results through an interactive, Flash-based interface. The mission statement explains:

Since August 2005, We Feel Fine has been harvesting human feelings from a large number of weblogs. Every few minutes, the system searches the world’s newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases "I feel" and "I am feeling". When it finds such a phrase, it records the full sentence, up to the period, and identifies the "feeling" expressed in that sentence (e.g. sad, happy, depressed, etc.). Because blogs are structured in largely standard ways, the age, gender, and geographical location of the author can often be extracted and saved along with the sentence, as can the local weather conditions at the time the sentence was written. All of this information is saved.

Working with Sepandar Kamvar, Jonathan has created an wonderful interface for navigating and exploring this "feeling" data. We complained here about how enterprise applications can’t seem to keep up with consumer reporting interfaces—these guys have just raised the bar. A few things that I find brilliant about this interface:

1. The navigation and controls are both easy to understand and engaging. It made me think of that "close to the road" feeling Car & Driver likes to rave about when reviewing a BMW. Here’s a look at the demographic chooser:

2. They recognize and celebrate the individual pieces of data while allowing for aggregation of results. Throughout the application, individual "feelings" are represented as energetic little circles or squares. Clicking one brings up detailed information—the sentence in which the feeling was found. Below you’ll see that that they used these granular data elements to create a column graph to show the "feeling" split by age.

3. Finally, they make data exploration fun. They feed the user’s curiosity with tangible and lively of data, unexpected touches, and the overall design. One lovely surprise: the mounds that make up the graph below have a fantastically frivolous Jello-like behavior that you can manipulate with your mouse.

For more on Jonathan Harris, check out other web sites he has been involved with...

...or his companies