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Talking with... Moritz Stefaner

An exclusive conversation with the "truth and beauty operator"

March 20, 2014

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The ‘truth and beauty operator’ – usually this is enough for the data visualization community to immediately recognize Moritz Stefaner. His work, in the multidimensional intersection of design, aesthetics, and data analysis, has been praised all over the world, and he has been a frequent presence in most of the events that are relevant to the field, for almost a decade now.

But for this German-based freelancer, working with data visualization is something that goes way beyond the digital realm. Either by creating physical data sculptures and installations, or by experimenting with food as a mean to transmit information, Moritz reveals that particular kind of eagerness so common in those few that keep pushing the boundaries of their fields of expertise, without ever getting tired.

A perfect example of that is Data Stories, the first podcast to exclusively tackle data visualization that he and Enrico Bertini launched last year. Establishing a bridge between practitioners and academia and expanding our views of what data visualization is all about – outside our own spheres of practice – are just some of goals achieved so far by this brilliant initiative.

In this short interview, Moritz tells us how he began his exciting journey into data visualization, discusses a couple of his most recent projects, and shares some of his favorite moments on Data Stories.

Visual Loop (VL) – Moritz, when – and how – did you begin to work with data visualization?

Moritz Stefaner (MS) – I always had a thing for design, and structures, and numbers. I read “Gödel, Escher, Bach” when I was 18 and it pretty much blew my mind, so you could say that laid the foundation for my later interests in the beauty of data and code.

The first real data visualization I produced was probably the “Organic Link Network“, which I coded in 2002 as a sort of gimmicky addition to my web site at that time.

But then it took until 2005, when I did my B.Sc. Thesis in Cognitive Science about mapping document spaces, and when we built a haptic compass in form of a belt, that I ultimately got fascinated with the field and its potential and realized this was the one thing I wanted to pursue further.

VL – As the ‘truth and beauty operator’ you’ve always demonstrated a delicate and effective balance between the whole ‘data visualization vs. data art’ argument. How would you describe a ‘beautiful data visualization’ to a person that had neither practical or academic experience in the field?

MS – That’s a tough question. I think beauty on data visualization arises from hitting a certain sweet spot between order and chaos, exactly the point where the information is really rich and seems infinite, but there is still enough structure and guidance to lead you from one interesting discovery to the next one.

A good data visualization is captivating and immersive. It makes you forget about time. Does that qualify as an answer?

A good data visualization is captivating and immersive. It makes you forget about time.

VL – Sure! Speaking of ‘practitioners and academia’, you and Enrico Bertini launched, a few months back, the ‘Data Stories’ Podcast, which quickly became a reference for those in the field of data visualization. In what ways Data Stories has impacted your personal view of data visualization, and your work?

Oh, in countless ways! I often say, only half-joking, that the only reason we run the podcast is to get to talk to all the wonderful people we have as guests. It is really mind-expanding for both of us.

And I think, generally, we don’t have enough conversations about data and visualization. There are loads of projects, conference talks, blog posts, books – but very little actual dialogue about data visualization. So, in fact, it would be great to have some competition :)

There are loads of projects, conference talks, blog posts, books – but very little actual dialogue about data visualization

VL – And do you have a favorite episode, one that was particularly exciting for you?

MS – I especially appreciated the episodes where we left the technicalities behind and talked about the social role of data today, such as the conversation with Kate Crawford or with Jake Porway and Kim Rees.

But in a way, all of them were great. We had such lovely and smart guests…

VL – Moving on to some of your most recent works and projects you were involved: selfiecity.net was launched very recently. Can you tell us a bit about how the project came to live and what was your contribution in it?


MS – Sure! Selfiecity was quite a crazy project. In short, we investigated the style of selfies in 5 cities around the world.

Selfies were already subject of many discussions in popular media. However, if we simply scan images tagged as selfie on Instagram, or observe people around us taking self-portraits, it’s hard to quantify patterns, or systematically compare selfies from multiple cities taken by people who differ in age and gender. Are all selfies taken by young people? Do men take many selfies? Are we all trying to copy celebrities in choosing how we represent ourselves? Are there any significant differences between selfies shared in New York and Moscow, or Berlin and Bangkok? Selfiecity is the first project which investigates such questions systematically, using carefully assembled large sample of selfies photos and tools of statistics, data science and data visualization.

Lev Manovich (a pioneer in the analysis of visual social data) coordinated the project, while I was responsible for creative direction and visualizations. But we had a team of 8 people altogether, from my brilliant collaborator Dominikus Baur over data scientists, art historians and programmers.

We think that such complex cultural phenomena can only be investigated with a mix of techniques, ranging from theory over quantitative analysis to visualization and artistic expression.

Consequently, our project features many different components: The interactive selfiexploratory allows you to navigate the whole set of 3200 photos from five cities from around the world. Rich media visualizations (imageplots) assemble thousands of photos to reveal interesting patterns. We also present new findings about the demographics of people taking selfies, their poses and expressions.

And finally, video montages assemble hundreds of images into a dynamic, morphing “aggregate city face”.

From a data visualization point of view, our biggest challenge was to find forms of summarization that show the high level patterns in the data — the big picture — but still respect the individuals, and don’t strip away all the interesting details. You can’t just average images, and expect interesting results. So we tried to come up with ways that allow users to explore a complex phenomenon on their own terms, in a sensually rich mosaic of media and facts — rather than just ready-made deep-fried bite-sized info-snacks.

VL – And other two of your most recent projects were, actually, collaborations with journalistic publications (Electionland), with Zeit Online, and Where the wild bees are, for Scientific American, both explained in detail here and here. Are you experiencing a rise in this type of demand from news and scientific outlets?

MS – I can’t talk about the trend in the industry, but speaking for myself, I certainly learned to appreciate more and more to work with scientists and journalists. I think their methods and ideals are highly relevant for data visualization practitioners, and at the same time, there is a huge need for comprehensive and sophisticated data visualization in this context.

It is very satisfying to me to work in these areas, and I hope I can continue to do projects, especially in the science context. In fact, it would be one of my current dream commissions to do a “lab rotation residency” in a big research institution — work with a specific team for a few weeks to visualize their favorite data set, then move on to the next one. And then present the results really big. (Email me if you think you can make that happen!)

VL – Wearable technology, 3D printing, ubiquitous computing – it’s almost scary, the technological developments we’re experiencing in such a fast tempo, that really impact the field of data visualization. What are the challenges you anticipate for your work in the upcoming years?

MS – Yes, I agree, the field and the possibilities are exploding – and we are still far from even understanding data visualization on mobile properly! But, personally, I am really excited about the prospect of 4k multitouch screens at decent sizes (e.g 50-70″), which, I believe it will enable whole new types of applications.

But, of course, there’s also data sculptures, ambient visualization, food… so many media left to discover and explore! I don’t think it is going to be boring any time soon :)

I am really excited about the prospect of 4k multitouch screens at decent sizes (e.g 50-70″), which, I believe it will enable whole new types of applications.

VL – And, to close, any future projects, Moritz, something you’re working on that you could tell us about?

MS – Well, I don’t really like to talk about unlaid eggs… but I can say there will be a few updates to the Better Life Index, and a related new site soon. And, if all works out, we hope to publish another cultural analytics project “a la selfiecity” in summer. It is just too much fun to work on these types of things :)

VL – Thank you so much, Moritz!

MS – Thanks!

 

We really appreciate the fact that Moritz took his time to answer our questions. Follow his updates on Twitter (@moritz_stefaner), connect with him on LinkedIn, and keep up with his work on Well-Formed Data and moritz.stefaner.eu.

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.

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