The beauty of data

By now you may know that I’ve become minorly obsessed with data visu­al­iza­tion and net­work sci­ence as a result of my var­ious adven­tures around campus. Of course, obsessed is a rel­a­tive term and there are def­i­nitely some other folks here who have me beat in that depart­ment. Isabel Meirelles would be one of them.

We met for coffee last week and I fell fur­ther in love with the idea of com­mu­ni­cating sci­ence and data to the gen­eral public through var­ious media. My media of choice these days is writing, but I think Meirelles’ work in visual trans­la­tion travels in the same vein. “I was fas­ci­nated by motion and inter­ac­tion,” she said, explaining the impetus behind earning her second master’s degree at MassArt’s Dynamic Media Institute.

She started out as an archi­tect in Sao Paolo, but after sev­eral twists and turns in her career, maneu­vering through museums, mag­a­zines, and graphic design, she now teaches in Northeastern’s Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design, forming col­lab­o­ra­tions across col­lege bound­aries with people like net­work sci­en­tist Albert Laszlo Barabasi and speech and lan­guage pathol­o­gist Rupal Patel.

After earning tenure in 2009, she said, “I knocked on Laszlo’s door, and said, ‘I read your book, Linked and I really need to learn some­thing new. I want to work with larger data sets. Can I get a PhD with you?’” Pre­vi­ously she’d used small enough data sets that she could do the visu­al­iza­tion man­u­ally, but between the internet and new mobile devices, data was exploding and old tech­niques were not suf­fi­cient to deal with it.

Instead, Barabasi sug­gested they join forces. One of their first col­lab­o­ra­tions was the web­site design for his second book, Bursts.

Meirelles’ back­ground in museum cura­tion and arts edu­ca­tion lends an obvious second layer to her interest in data com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Not only does she design her own visu­al­iza­tions, she also curates net­work sci­ence gallery instal­la­tions across the country.

Most recently, Meirelles orga­nized The Art of Net­works exhibit at the Florida Insti­tute of Technology’s Foosaner Art Museum, with the help of Ronaldo Menezes,  Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Com­puter Sci­ence at Florida Tech and Director of the Bio­Com­plex Lab­o­ra­tory. The opening coin­cided with the 3rd annual Work­shop on Net­work Sci­ence, CompleNet2012.

Meirelles chose ten projects that tell sto­ries ranging from the online life of a New York Times article to the rela­tion­ship between media cov­erage and gov­ern­ment spending.

As we flipped through the images sip­ping our respec­tive caf­feinated bev­er­ages, I noted how beau­tiful some of them were. “They’re all beau­tiful!” she responded…

For me beau­tiful design or visu­al­iza­tion is less con­nected to the gen­eral under­standing of aes­thet­ical beauty of what pleases one, and is more con­nected to how mean­ingful it is or how well we com­mu­ni­cate the infor­ma­tion. I truly believe that often times when that hap­pens it becomes beau­tiful. Obvi­ously the selec­tion of the right colors helps, but also it’s  a per­cep­tion thing: If you select colors that don’t create enough con­trast, you don’t see the data…[You need an] under­standing of how we per­ceive visu­ally and cog­ni­tively. That’s very dif­ferent from works of art…which don’t have to be mean­ingful in this way.

For the fun of it, I’ve included this bit of our con­ver­sa­tion below…more of an exer­cise in tech­nology use for me, but also if you want to hear the pas­sion in Meirelles’ voice as she explains the beauty of data: