Stamen is a design and technology studio in San Francisco.

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Nov 20, 2009

The deal with Cabspotting

As previously mentioned, Cabspotting has been getting successively less live GPS taxi data from Yellow Cab during the last few months, resulting in an anemic and much spindlier (spindlier?) view of San Francisco than is normal when it's in a healthy state:

Being Stamen, of course we didn't think to just pick up the phone and call Yellow Cab and ask them what was going on, but instead started making database queries and visualizations of taxi activity over time, and engaging in wild and baseless musings on what was happening. So, this (by Shawn):

The graph shows the last 6 months of activity, from May to November. And you can see both the number of cabs reporting and the number of points being reported go down in pretty much lock step. Mike speculated that Yellow Cab was switching their fleet over to a new GPS monitoring system, and switching the cabs out over time. A call to the dispatch confirmed that this is exactly what's going on, and the switch is almost done. Yellow Cab's told us that they'll be restoring the feed in the next week or thereabouts, so we'll be keeping our eyes open & hopefully the data will be back to normal shortly. And if you, like UC Berkeley's Mobile Millenium Project, are using the data, please reach out and let us know.

Update, Nov 21: Everything's back to normal. Lesson for the week: sometimes it's just better to pick up the phone :)

Nov 17, 2009

HQ2 week 2

Our second full week in Stamen HQ2 still found us wandering around the new space, blinking at the possibilities. There's a whole room full of empty and as-yet-uncrushed boxes, a room full of my old stuff (I used to live at Stamen HQ1, back in the day), a room with mostly plant-free large pots from our old space that will eventually become holders for our new trees, and rooms that we're mostly unsure of. On the flip side I've set up the orchids near the west window, we have a little new sitting room next to my office that looks out on the mad sprawl of 16th and Mission as well as downtown San Francisco, the whiteboard paint on the walls is being used, we had our first client visit day, we're laying down rugs and buying chairs things are generally coming together, and it's starting to feel a bit more like home. It took me 8 years of place making to get the old studio right, and it's sometimes hard to remember that we've only been here for 2 weeks. But HQ2 has good bones, and I can't wait to see how it looks in a year.

Out in public, a few things to report:

Thing 1: We released a new map project for the ACLU called The War is Everywhere, which shows the locations of those held under the indefinite detention regime set up during the War on Terror (and which President Obama, mercifully, seems to be making steps towards curbing the worst excesses of. It's always chilling to engage with this material—we have another project in the works which deals with a similarly grisly aspect of the previous administration's policies—but it feels good to be participating in some small way in America's rehabilitation after a long period of madness and fear.

Thing 2: The City of San Francisco, already in our good graces for releasing the official crime statistics that make San Francisco Crimespotting possible, has released a whole new swath of data going back to 2003, making the project that much more interesting. A recent breakdown of the crime types that they're now providing looks like this:

Other Offenses (5812) / Non-criminal (2907) / Warrants (1408) / Suspicious Occ (1063) / Missing Person (853) / Fraud (489) / Forgery/counterfeiting (391) / Weapon Laws (312) / Trespass (304) / Disorderly Conduct (202) / Drunkenness (185) / Stolen Property (164) / Driving Under The Influence (140) / Kidnapping (109) / Liquor Laws (87) / Runaway (76) / Loitering (36) / Family Offenses (27) / Suicide (25) / Embezzlement (22) / Bribery (12) / Bad Checks (8) / Gambling (7) / Extortion (7) / Sex Offenses, Non Forcible (4)

So we're clearly going to have to find a better organizing scheme than the 13 category-strong one we have now, without turning the project into one giant checkbox, a situation it was explicitly designed to provide an alternative to. In the meantime the project now has links to prostitution, though murder is still conspicuously absent—so more on this soon. Shawn has been totally rocking this project and the relationship with the City, and we're learning how to delegate proper time to engagements with civic infrastructure—it takes time, and (so far) there's no money in it, so we're thinking about how to balance that with the demands of interesting client work.

Thing 3: Another interesting but profit-free project we've had running for some time, Cabspotting, has had some hiccups in the last week. Something's up with the feed, and we're getting only about 10% of the taxis coming through as we used to. There's been a sharp uptick in mail about it, as it turns out that lots of people are using the feed on a regular basis—which would have been nice to know, people—so we're going to have to take a look at that & figure out what to do. I really want to keep the project going—it's one of those projects that lets us have conversations about digital civic infrastructure that are hard to have otherwise.

One option would be to pickle it: to have it displaying, say, what the data looked like in 2008, when things were more stable. This would be sad, as there's something about saying "this is where the Yellow Cabs are now" that can't quite be matched by a canned dataset. We'll see. Maintaining these ongoing not-profitable projects over many years is something we haven't quite figured out how to handle; it's important to do, as it serves as a benchmark for what's possible and for what should be done, but it can get lost in the flurry of paying client work. Sha has been poking at me to find ways for, say, the Knight Ridder Foundation to fund some of these projects moving forward (they gave $485,380 to fund a variety of projects last year, including Development Seed) and we're interested in finding ways that these projects can be more than simply lures for potential client work down the line.

Thing 4: CNN wrote an article about data visualization in general, which had a bit about us in particular:

"Cities like San Francisco, Washington D.C., and New York meanwhile hold developer competitions to encourage greater use of the data sets they're releasing, with iPhone apps being of particular interest.

"The variety of clients at Stamen, a San Francisco firm noted for its data visualizations, speaks to the craft's increasing reach. Financial institutions, architects, carmakers, design agencies, museums, tech firms, political action committees, and universities have all knocked on Stamen's doors."

The continued movement of data visualization from the academy into the mainstream is, as you can imagine, of keen interest here at Stamen—it's broadening the conversation from data nerds to the broader public. At some point it's not going to be accurate any more to say that it's moving into the mainstream anymore, and the work will be more about innovation within a mature medium than about increasingly bold salvoes against previously walled-off datasets. Eventually we'll be firmly in the realm of fashion design, which (as Ben is so fond of saying) is how Stamen should really think of itself: where seasonal iteration is the point, technical experimentation is considered essential to the work, and style vies with substance for the upper hand and often wins. And fashion, as Karl Lagerfeld puts it, is "ephemeral, dangerous and unfair."

An iron triangle of iPhone, civic data, and data visualization feels unavoidable at this point, at least among those writing about visualization in the press. One of our clients talked about how, far from the iPhone being a fancy phone for yuppies, it's better to think about it as a primary computer for low-income people. So we're going to have to address this sooner or later, hopefully sooner; it feels like location-specific mobile work is just at our fingertips.

Thing 5:I spoke at two symposiums at GAFFTA, the new art space where our "Tenderloin Dynamic" is installed in the mezzannine, with Casey Reas and Camille Utterback.

On the second night, we had a wide ranging discussion about the role of the public in our work, how feedback impacts the design/art process, the use of public datasets in art, and so on. The first night was a visit from an art collector's club put together by the Pacific Film Archive and Peter Hirshberg, which was a chance to be exposed to the more, shall we say, refined audience for digital art, and a new and intriguing experience for me. We're increasingly being asked to participate in museum and gallery shows, and are learning to insist on a live internet connection as a condition of our involvement, which makes it easier to digest the change from online-only to site-specific work.

Thing 6: Mike posted some notes about Canvas and HTML5 and how these newish technologies are starting to look like a potential new avenue for online visualization. In particular, there seem to be some intriguing possibilities in managing map warping, which could be a useful tool in geo-rectifying old maps for use in more modern formattings:

Strictly speaking, this happened the week before last, and not this week, but it took me a while to digest it, so Thing 6 is more properly "I spent some time wrapping my head around Mike's latest thing."

And so, phew, and yay HQ2. Tom's written another in-studio diary "week in Stamen" mail, but of course it's peppered with references to "Big Client A" and works-in-progress, and we're not quite sure how to get around that if we want to make it public. In the meantime, I'm going to have to learn how to write faster.

Nov 6, 2009

HQ2 week 1

We spent our first full week in the new studio, which I'm calling Stamen HQ2. It's been a good week - HQ2 is a bit larger than we're used to (and truth be told, comfortable with) so we're still in that stage where we're wandering around looking into corners and trying out the distances between the rooms. We're getting there, putting the orchids back in the windows, setting up the kitchen, and figuring out how to interact with each other now that there are doors that can (but generally don't) close. There aren't nearly enough chairs, but the floors are really nice and clean, and we're still pointing at maps:

The move is looking to have been a good decision in retrospect, as it turns out: we're going to need some more room very soon (and HQ1 had basically no more of it) as our good friend and master mapmaker Aaron Straup Cope has left Flickr after a good 5 year run and decided to come and work at Stamen:

The good news is that I've accepted a position to frolic around and play with the trouble-makers that are Stamen Design because "it seems like too good an opportunity and one that I would always wonder about if I'd said no". It's not often you get to say something like that twice in a row and in the immortal words of Gibby Haynes: 'It's better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven't done.'

To which I say: yay. I don't think it's an exaggeration (and I hope I'm not putting too much pressure on Aaron) to say that I think we're about to see a whole new level of possibility open up as a result of this. Mike has been shouldering the increasingly heavy burden of responsibility for Stamen's backend work on his own for a long time, and having Aaron around to work with him at the level that he can (and already hasis really exciting in its own right. And Aaron, in addition to having made a whole series of amazing contributions to Flickr over the years, has built things that derive location from geotagged flickr photos and fake subway APIs (you know, for when realtime proper APIs are an assumed part of digital civic infrastructure, just like electricity), and so we're just tickled.

I say again yay:

Photo by Aaron

It's been quite a week otherwise:

  • We launched a new business map for LOCOG, and it's great to see the original map we made for them start to branch out into other uses
  • The custom cartography work we did for local news site Patch went live yesterday. We used OSM data to generate a set of map tiles that worked much better with Patch's subdued green branding than Google Maps's bright orange freeways did. There was a little flap about this, as people seemed to think that Patch should've used MapQuest's map for this (the companies are both owned by AOL). From where we sit, it seems like using a MapQuest or Google map in your site is great branding for MapQuest or Google, but not necessarily for you—so we're glad to see companies like Patch caring enough about their brand to extend it all the way into their cartography. You can see larger versions of the maps here, and learn how to make custom maps of your own at http://mapsfromscratch.com/.
  • We changed up the work we did with MTV on the European Music Awards, and the piece is (as of this writing) still tracking live twitter traffic related to the EMAs, here.

Alot happened that's not publishable yet, and that's a shame. Tom wrote up a "week at Stamen" mail last week that put the week's goings-on into a diary format, at the encouragement of Matt Webb, who's been writing wonderful weekly updates over at Berg that we've both been paying attention to. I love that they're doing it, and the discipline of keeping a diary of everything that's happening at our busy studio really appeals—but I'm not sure I have the time or the discipline, and as most of what I do (besides creative direction & generally running the business) is forward-looking biz dev, so it's hard to talk about in public. Maybe I'll ask Tom to help me write it; he seems to have a much easier time putting words down (for me it's like pulling teeth).

Oct 27, 2009

Movin' On Up

Well, it's been a few years since I've needed to kick a coconut into all the corners of a new space (to absorb any potential bad juju, naturally) before moving in, but: here we go again!

The capable and strapping men at Bay City Movers have just spent about 9 hours on Tuesday loading all our stuff into a truck and moving it about 250 feet down the street to our new digs, at 2017 Mission St., Suite 300, in San Francisco. We can literally see the old studio out the windows of the new studio, and vise versa—so in geographical terms it's not such a big move, but the difference in the quality of the space is like night and day, the difference between this (and you shoulda seen it way back when):

and this:

It's a lot bigger than our old space, so we've spent the last couple of days rattling around the hallways and things are a bit chaotic, and in the case of the plant room/solarium, wonderfully so:

And the sunsets in the corner meeting room sure are lovely:

(all photos by Sha Hwang (who still owes me his bio), except the top one)

In some ways it's a shame to move now—Google just literally put Stamen on the map in their latest design update:

Sadly, it's at our old location. If only there were some way that people could update our location on a map...

Oct 21, 2009

We're looking for a Studio Manager

For re-posting as far as the winds will take it: we are looking for a Studio Manager to help Deborah keep things running smoothly around here. Specifically:

We're looking for a confident, caring and motivated person to help run our busy Mission design studio. We are looking for someone with excellent organization skills, who's clear and bold in both vocal and written expression, is computer literate, has a positive and professional demeanor, has the ability to prioritize and juggle multiple tasks, and is comfortable working in a dynamic service business that is receiving increased attention from the outside world. Flexibility and versatility are a must as we work quickly, organically, and collaboratively. You will be joining a close-knit team and we will very quickly start to rely on you for things that are important to us.

It's an important job—when it's not done right, no work can happen. Deborah used to do all of this but there's just too much going on. More details here. Interested? Apply!

Oct 15, 2009

Crimespotting in the Guardian

We learned today that San Francisco Crimespotting was featured in today's Guardian, which is nice! Esopus was kind enough to send a link to an online viewer, and Zapme's offered to send us a copy, and the article below that one is about how London's talking about doing the same thing - get with it, people!

Image by harry_wood

Oct 1, 2009

GAFFTA: It's all happening

Sha and I are here at GAFFTA after midnight the night before the show (and the place is packed! packed, I say, with smarties), finishing up the final details of our installation (which opens tomorrow), Alfonso and Julie (pictured below) are gracefully and delicately applying our wall-sized maps to the walls of the mezzanine, Josette and her crew of volunteers are handling the whole show, it's all coming together, I can't believe it, huzzah!

Update 10/05: a previous version of this post referenced Josette in the image above: that's actually Julie, who was incredible to work with and totally helpful and was very much appreciated throughout the whole process. Thanks Julie!

Sep 30, 2009

Stamen show at GAFFTA with Casey Reas and Camille Utterback

Sha and I were walking along 6th Street in San Francisco the other day,and Sha noticed one of my favorite views: Stevenson Street from 6th towards 5th, recently enhanced by the monumental bulk of Morphosis' new-ish San Francisco Federal Building looming up behind, all Blade Runner in San Francisco-style. Google shows it OK, Microsoft's birds-eye is nice but too far out, but I realized that I'd taken my own photos of the alley years ago, before I started Stamen and was working as an independent designer for companies like eLine.

This was probably...2000? 2001? eLine'd just moved into their new building and their site needed a new look, so I spent a day taking photographs of the space, trying to capture the stark but comfy feel of their industrial space, and the casually intense nature of the work environment. Sort of like Stamen: plants and books everywhere, quiet intensity, lots of laughter, while right outside the madness of 6th and Market raged and swung:

In any event this was back in 2000, or so and buying a building right off of 6th Street was an optimistic gesture to say the least. I've had an office at 16th and Mission for 9 years now, and even I definitely made sure I kept my New York face on when I walked down there for design reviews. And I've been watching that neighborhood closely ever since, thinking that it and the adjoining Tenderloin, where I've lived since 2001, were too central, too beautiful, too urban and dense and ultimately interesting to stay run-down and ignored and basically a containment zone for too much longer.

Lately there's been alot of interesting (I would say positive) development about the neighborhood -from the new police chief's targeted (and highly effective) drug bust, to proposals to turn a blighted stretch of Market Street into San Francisco's version of Times Square, to Mona Caron's lovely new building-sized mural (extra points if you can identify the lady painting), to traffic closures on Market Street making the district more accessible to bikes and pedestrians, to new galleries opening up on O'Farrell and Geary Streets. Walking around, especially at night, feels different than it did even a few months ago—it's safer, cleaner, and there are alot more people out on the street walking and doing things, instead of yelling or fighting or dealing drugs or just generally being antisocial.

All of this is a perhaps overlong preamble to me being able to express my delight that Stamen is participating in the inaugural show for a new digital arts space in the Tenderloin: the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, or GAFFTA. We're installing a site specific piece called Tenderloin Dynamic, which explores some familiar datasets: cabs and crimes of course, but also some new data from the Uptown Tenderloin National Register Historic District, trees, building permits, etc. The installation is about understanding the neighborhood as a varied and dynamic system with its own ebbs and flows, and we're trying to come up with a series of views that help people understand a neighborhood that is generally represented as a monolithic, homogenous, and unpleasant spot.

Gallery shows are a departure from our usual activity—we generally tend more towards making map-generating engines than towards static representations, especially ones that get hung on gallery walls, and our only other gallery show was a dynamic system, whereas here we're working mostly in large scale prints. But we've been given the whole mezzanine to work with, and what would normally be a challenge for thing-on-wall-hanging—the space has mostly half-walls that overlook the gallery proper—has turned into an interesting place to think about transparency and visibility into the neighborhood, a subject that the SFMOMA blog has contentiously addressed here and here.

I have to say that it's an honor to be included on the same roster as Casey Reas and Camille Utterback, inventor of McArthur grant recipient, respectively—these are people you read about in textbooks on interactive media, and to be included in the same breath with them is exciting and a little humbling; I hope we can provide a worthwhile contribution to this top-notch group of digital practitioners.

In any event, the show is happening, I'm excited, you can read about it on the GAFFTA blog, and should you be anywhere near the Tenderloin on the night of Thursday, October 1 (for the fund raiser, which costs), or on Friday, October 2, please do stop by, we'd love to take you on a tour of the mezzanine!

Sep 14, 2009

Kanye West is an a**hole and other Twitter moments from the MTV Video Music Awards

As promised, here are some screenshots and photos taken during yesterday's music awards ceremony at Radio City Music Hall.

Radian6 polled twitter data in real time, searching for MTV, VMA, and a few other event-related terms, as well as the names of all the celebrities that we knew would be at the event. The idea was to provide a rolling snapshot of activity that we would use to build a real-time visualization of who was being talked about at the awards, as well as what people were saying about them. Not surprisingly, just before the event, by far the dominant character was "MTV" itself:

For the first hour and a half (we started at 8am EST), things went pretty much as expected. Celebrities arrived, walked down the red carpet, preened, and went into the venue, and you could see their twitter traffic rise and fall accordingly. Fans noticed that Pink and Shakira were wearing the same dress, you could see this reflected in the keywords about those two celebrities, and their charts started going up and down at about the same rate - below, somewhere between 10 and 50 tweets every 30 seconds, which if you think about it, is kind of a lot.

At around 9:25, Taylor Swift accepted the award for best female video - her line is the red one on the bottom of the screen below, and you can see it just jump to 2261 in 30 seconds - which again is kind of a lot. Kanye West, who hadn't yet stormed the stage & taken the microphone from her, was at about 8 tweets every 30 seconds.

Immediately afterwards, Kanye's #'s shot through the roof, to almost 5000 tweets in 30 seconds, and remained upwards of 2000 tweets every 30 seconds for most of the night. Note that the keywords associated with Kanye were at this point still fairly benign: "love," "performance," etc.

After Radian6's servers had a few minutes to chew on the huge numbers of tweets they were receiving, a few other words crept in, see below. These were of course quickly removed by MTV - not that anyone on TV ever saw this, but still.

It wasn't all excitement - we spent most of our time in a 10' x 10' tent on 51st Street, hunched over our laptops (like in Mike's recent trip to Camp Roberts, surrounded by a different kind of star):

watching Justine talk about the visualization on a tiny little monitor, with huge crowds gathering on 6th Avenue behind her:

We did get a few chances to duck into the venue though, and if you ever get a chance to see the prep for a major concert, let me highly recommend it. The way a mostly empty Radio City Music Hall, buzzing with activity and booming with rock and roll and pyrotechnic tests but strangely quiet and professional, sends an anticipatory chill up the spine, is not something I'll soon forget.

Having been through this it's a bit easier for me to understand why TV people have such a hard time with the internet (and believe me, I ran into a few on the set): there's something profoundly exciting and, yes, visceral about 1000 qualified professionals all quietly working for months to providing 3 hours of the best-crafted pop in the world, that makes it hard to believe that people would prefer passing 140 character messages around in mostly quiet rooms. But more on that later.

All in all it's been a really memorable experience for me—Sha totally kicked ass again, coding in the tent while Green Day made the sidewalk rumble, Deborah ran logistics and made sure we could work effectively, Shawn backed us up in San Francisco, Justine did a great job on top of the marquee at Radio City, Radian6 totally made it happen, Chloe from twitter pulled the whole live thing off swimmingly, and Michael Scogin and his team at MTV were as supportive as I could have ever hoped. We did the whole thing in a month, the visualization (which is still live, by the way) stayed up the whole time, it was shown on live MTV, and I'm about to take the rest of the day off and stroll around on a gorgeous New York City afternoon.

I love it when a plan comes together!

Sep 13, 2009

Stamen on MTV

I've been camped out on 51st Street next to Radio City Music Hall for the last two days with people from Twitter, Radian6, and MTV for the past two days (and nights), and we're on deadline for tonight so a more complete post on this will have to wait, but in the meantime, there's this to consider (from Reuters):

MTV.com, Radian6 and Stamen Bring Real-Time Online Buzz Via Twitter to Live TV For The '2009 MTV Video Music Awards'
MTV.com to Host Exclusive Content, Interactive Watch and Discuss Video, Dedicated Online Fashion Shows from Red Carpet and More

NEW YORK, Sept. 11 /PRNewswire/ -- In line with efforts to bring fans closer and truly make them part of the show, MTV is teaming up with leading interactive and social media companies Radian6 and Stamen to bring fans real-time online Twitter visualization experiences to complement the "2009 MTV Video Music Awards" airing live on Sunday, September 13 at 8pm ET/PT. Popular video blogger iJustine (Justine Ezarik) will be the official VMA "Twitter Correspondent," and will be interpreting Twitter comments during the redcarpet pre-show. The on-air component will be executed through a new interactive application created in partnership with social media measurement company Radian6 and design firm Stamen, and will bring Twitter to the television in a new and interesting manner.

That's us in the middle, with the moon guy: