We're the cover story (!) of this month's Icon Magazine, featured alongside my longtime heroes at the Center for Land Use Interpretation as part of the maps issue. Ari Messer did a terrific job on the interview, and R.C. Rivera spent an afternoon photographing our plant- and map-filled studio with some lovely results. Unfortunately Shawn wasn't here for the photographing (I think he got married or something, whatever) so it's just Mike and I on the front spread, but overall I'm super happy with the resulting portrait of where the studio is now: 13 people, working in a garden in the middle of a vibrant city, a strong ethic, and maps and visualizations in active use by the public.
There's a lot in the article, but this bit is one I like enough to want to post here. I think it was me, who said:
Stamen finds inspiration everywhere, but Rodenbeck hopes that the public will stop conflating infographics with data visualization. "The rise of the infographic as a genre is a little depressing. Back when desktop publishing started, people were worried that there would be no more room for designers, that computers would do all the work for you. But this clearly didn't turn out to be the case." While someone without design training [or skill -- E] could make use of desktop publishing to create a holiday card or office leaflet or company newsletter, the band at the top for good designers actually grew. In a similar way, he says, "infographics have become the mother's day cards - the company newsletters - of data visualization."
Luckily, my office was a total wreck when R.C. took some pictures of it, but it gives a pretty good sense of what it's like around here these days:
Nathaniel showcased nearly two years of City Tracking in Boston last Monday at the MIT/Knight Story and the Algorithm conference. You can read about this years' winners here, as well about the changing nature of the grant: shorter cycles, more opportunities to apply, that kind of thing. It's worth a look.
The City Tracking project started off with Dotspotting.org, which allows mapping of data spreadsheets. The project still sees active use, but after we made the Toner tiles available for download we started to notice that more people were expressing interest in the background maps than in the ability to put dots on them.
Responding to public feedback while the project happened was something we were interested in from the start, and http://maps.stamen.com is the result: a browsable, embeddable, and otherwise immediately usable map of the whole world that can be used in Google Maps, Modest Maps, and other mapping APIs without having to download all of OpenStreetMap or tinkering with servers and technical code.
Nathaniel closed with a project we launched in March showing how climate change can be made personal on the street level, instead of the usual course brush strokes, with Climate Central's surging seas project.
These thin slices of big data are bite size morsels of aha. We hope you like them!
We've been working on a travel planner for the Weather Channel that tells you a bit more than just how long it'll take to get from point A to point B. This one predicts what the weather's going to be like along your drive, when you get there.
So let's say you're driving from New York to San Francisco, and you're trying to decide whether to go straight across or loop up or down a bit; this will give you a sense for whether it's going to be rainy or sunny when you plan to be in the middle of Nebraska. You can drag around the rainy bits if you like, and also along the way maybe you'd like to stop for a bite to eat, so we're hitting the Yelp API to give you a sense of where to go and what to see.
As is often the case, the research that goes into building one of these pieces can be as interesting as the final product. As an early stage proof of concept, we put together some images showing all the predictions for weather searches offset by time and location, with some (I think) lovely results:
They start to put me in mind of an early project we did here at Stamen, a set of travel time maps for MySociety that plotted the time it would take to get from one place in London to every other place in London:
I start thinking of weather maps that flow and ebb across the country, where different sliders open and ebb various kinds of other axes: time for sure, but maybe population density, maybe altitude, maybe temperature, maybe how many farms there are, maybe distance from a weather station or a McDonald's—all the different kinds of things that affect people's sense of place and space and time, organized by what's above our heads.
There are cupcakes with Stamen maps on them. Each one has a single tile printed on it. Cups and Cakes Bakery baked and prepared them. They were made for the Where 2.0 conference, where Mike is talking about how Old Is The New New and I am talking about Drawing Outside the Lines, which taken together is a pretty good indication of where Stamen's collective thoughts are.
THERE ARE CUPCAKES WITH STAMEN MAPS ON THEM.
maps.stamen.com, the second installment of the City Tracking project funded by the Knight News Challenge, is live. These unique cartographic styles and tiles, based on data from Open Street Map, are available for the entire world, downloadable for use under a under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license, and free.
*takes deep breath*
There are three styles available: toner, terrain, and watercolor:
- Toner is about stripping online cartography down to its absolute essentials. It uses just black and white, describing a baseline that other kinds of data can be layered on. Stripping out any kind of color or image makes it easier to like focus on the interactive nature of online cartography: when do different labels show up for different cities? what should the thickness of freeways be at different zoom levels? and so forth. This project is the one that Nathaniel is hacking on at all hours, and it's great to be seeing Natural Earth data get more tightly integrated into the project over time.
- Terrain occupies a middle ground: "shaded hills, nice big text, and green where it belongs." In keeping with City Tracking's mandate to make it easier for people to tell stories about cities, this is an open-source alternative to Google's terrain maps, and it uses all open-source software like Skeletron to improve on the base line cartographic experience. Mike has been heading up this design, with help from Gem Spear and Nelson Minar.
- Watercolor pushes through to the other side of normal, bending the rules of traditional legibility in order to explore some new terrain. It incorporates hand-painted textures and algorithmic rule sets into a design that looks like it's been done by 10,000 slaves in the basement, but is rendered on the fly. Geraldine and Zach did the lion's share of the design and development on this one. This design is a mixed bag for me: I'm delighted to see it out in the world, but it's the thing that's pretty much kept me from looking at anything else for the last month and a half.
The code that runs Toner and Terrain is available for download and use at the Citytracking GitHub repository; watercolor we're going to wait on a little while until we can get some of the kinks ironed out. We talked about waiting to launch until watercolor was all buttoned up but what with all the attention that Open Street Map has been getting we decided to just bite the bullet and go for it.
We'll follow up this week with some posts on how everything works and how the sausage is made, and I've got a lot more to say about what I think this implies for what can be done with online maps and data visualization. In the meantime, have you seen how awesome Los Angeles, Washington DC, The Forbidden City, Massachussets Bay, Key West, London, New Orleans, New York, Versailles, and every other city in the cotton-pickin' world look when you point this thing at it? Holy heck.
The Forbidden City
We've been working with the smarties and do-gooders at Climate Central for the better part of a year now, designing and programming and planning and rendering and otherwise embiggening the idea of a map that could bring the reality of climate change to people's doorsteps. As of last week, the project is available at http://sealevel.climatecentral.org.
We started with two ideas:
- most maps of sea level rise are generic. How could we bring home the idea that this isn't about "those people" but about you and your neighborhood? and
- most maps of sea level rise are about the shrinking land. As a percentage of total land area, these always feel small and unsatisfying. Why don't we focus on the land that's going to be underwater, and try to make it clear that this is the land that we're going to lose?
The context for this work is: while there are a great many papers, scientific studies, meteorological surveys and other things that fall under the rubric of things that normal people accept as true, there remains a persistent and nagging unreality to the idea that, in something like a normal human timescale, we'll see and have to reckon with large-scale changes to the world as we know it. It's one thing to say "the world is changing and all of us will have to deal with it." It's quite another to say "7.6% of the people and 9.1% of the homes may very well be underwater in Boston, and so you'll need to start thinking about that pretty damn soon, is that cool?"
The political reluctance is certainly predictable — telling people about a long-term existential threat like this is just not a job that your average politician, elected for a term of a few years, may want to tackle. For that matter, it’s a hard subject for the rest of us to think about intelligently.
Although the risk of coastal flooding is slowly worsening year by year, it’s true that the worst consequences of sea-level rise, if they ever materialize, are still a long way off. Most people simply have trouble contemplating risks to their great-grandchildren. We’re a lot more interested in our own skins!
(As proof, I will tell you that two Times editors came by my desk this morning wondering about the near-term risks to their homes in low-lying areas of Long Island.)...
The Web site of Climate Central, where these sea-level studies were mainly done, has a great deal more useful information, including the ability to search by ZIP code and get a sense of your own risk.
(Justin Gillis, The New York Times)
Which is to say: if you're doing science and you want to have an impact on public discourse, pubish a rigorous scientific paper in the New York Times, and no mistake. But also: let people search for their own zip code, because what's personal matters.
Also: when the New York Times puts you on their front page, a couple dozen other news outlets do the same, and both Al Gore and Tim O'Reilly link to your stuff, it's probably a sign of two things: a) the alpha nerds are paying attention, and b) you're about to have a big traffic day.
At times on Wednesday the Climate Central computer servers were overloaded, so if you have trouble getting the search to work, try again a while later. (NYT)
We keep detailed project blogs for the duration of all our projects, where we post work-in-progress, links to related material, and so forth. We do this both as a way to share with our clients where things are at, but also as a way of maintaining a record of the thinking that went into the work (after all, "You can control time when you can see it."). I've often felt a sense of sadness that it's only the final piece that sees the light of day; there's a lightness to the experimentation that goes into the early parts of projects, when you're not worried so much about final implementation and instead can just play. We're going to start exposing some of this process, and this post is about the thinking that went into http://migration.stamen.com/, a recent project for Esquire Magazine.
Slicing & dicing
We started thinking about different ways to slice through the country. 1&, 5%, 99% are all in the news a lot lately, as is the idea that the American Dream of work hard & save your money & get a house & you'll be fine is true for less and less people all the time.
Our first idea was to break up all the zip codes across the country into different forms, based on demographics. Kind of like Jenny Odell's collages of [tankers from google maps]:
But instead of ships, there'd be the shapes of all the zip codes where, say, more that 10% of all homes are in foreclosure. I started sketching out maps of where some number of people have lost their jobs, or where the economy is strong; some aspect of economic life that matters to people now. And then, perhaps, you could arrange those back into a more visually-like-the-US map:
Slicing & splicing
We thought about a different kind of slicing: take a latitude line across the country, and find all the towns along that line. Every time you get to a town, you measure a series of demographics: age, income, education.
Stack enough of these on top of one another, you start to see patterns in the way the country is arranged: places with high populations of young people and lots of poverty, right next to places with the opposite. You get a literal slice through the country.
Maybe those lines aren't just latitude or longitude lines. Maybe they're lines along roads from one place to another. Find the poorest places in America, plot the routes between them, map obesity along the way:
Reverse this idea: instead of starting from one poor place and driving to another, find a route that goes only through poor places. Would you be able to get from Allen, South Dakota to Elmo, Montana, only driving through [poor places]? What would those routes look like?
How far could you get, if you could only drive through towns where the majority of people who lived there are under 40? Are there age sheds, just like there are watersheds and foodsheds?
(map by [Ryan Alexander])
Comparing rich to poor, we might find that some of these routes overlap quite closely; or that they never touch at all.
We could start to think of these routes as weather fronts: places that push up against one another without quite touching, but which affect each other as they roll past:
Maps of where the haves and have-nots live and work might start to emerge as distinct patters of relationships, depending on how you turned the dials. The 1% and the 5% might have more in common than they think. Or not; depending. Let's find out! Also, George has just pointed out to me that "iso chubbs" is not nearly as neutral a term as I had thought when I wrote it down, so that's a thing.
First, Mike plotted the routes people likely use to leave California, and where they end up:
Second, Jeff did this for all the roads in the US that people have moved along; thicken them by how often they're used (and note the crazily-well-traveled road up to Alaska):
Compare the roads that the top 1% of the money travels along:
to the roads the bottom 1% of money travels along. Notice that even though the amounts of $ are the same in both graphs, the road networks are a lot more extensive in the second, because there are alot more people moving at the lower levels of the scale:
George and Geraldine started thinking about how these maps might overlay and interact with one another, and came up with a couple different ideas that we liked:
Ultimately, though, none of these were as satisfyingly crisp and direct as Jeff's original sketches of the richest and poorest 35 counties, respectively. This idea of little archipelagos clustered along major travel routes, and the non-intersection of rich and poor, was more what we were looking for:
At some point Mike wrote "Can you make, like, a hundred more?"
LIMIT 35 OFFSET 35, LIMIT 35 OFFSET 70, LIMIT 35 OFFSET 105
and we were off and running. The final piece lets you move through the whole range from the top 1% to the bottom, and the different constellations and nooks and crannies of the moving American economic landscape are laid out like cracks in so much financial ice.
More at http://migration.stamen.com/
We added six(!) amazing people to our team last year, which brings us up to thirteen. As I've got two days left in the first month of 2012, I thought I'd take a crack at welcoming our new collaborators in public. The studio has a longish history of encouraging its members to turn their personal interests in to commercially relevant opportunities—sometimes we even say that this is what Stamen is for—and I'm excited to see what kind of impact our newest colleagues are going to have on Stamen output in the coming weeks, months and (if I'm lucky) years.
Bill Conneely is our new head of Operations and Finance. Formerly at the New York Times, he brings us the ability to look at the studio from a business perspective and keep things running and growing smoothly. I've always sworn that Stamen will never have an HR department, and I intend to keep that promise—but a team of 13 people with health insurance who participate in a profit sharing arrangement needs more structure than I'm good at maintaining, and Bill is heading that process.
George Oates comes to us from Flickr, where she was head designer, by way of the Internet Archive. I'll continue to be involved in all our projects as Creative Director, but we've grown to the point where we needed a cracking Art Director to oversee the look of things, and George is the best I know.
Michael Evans is a familiar face from our close involvement with Code for America, who started life in our studio (which seemed awfully large at the time, though this is changing as we fill in and the plants get bigger). He's working closely with Stamen partner and CTO Mike Migurski on the technical infrastructures that make everything else possible, and we're looking forward to helping with his work on the Open311 Dashboard he pioneered at CfA.
Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso is our first professional cartographer. We've been familiar with his work at National Geographic and The Washington Post for some time now, and we're proud to be added to the list of sponsors of his amazing Natural Earth Project.
We've hired our first trained geometer, cryptographer and locigican in Rachel Binx. She's been blogging about her work on projects like the MTV twitter trackers at bit over at rachelbinx.com, has changed her hair color twice since we met her, and has us dancing around the studio interacting with the Kinect experiments she developed at the Art & Code festival at Carnegie Mellon.
And last but not least (this list is alphabetical), Zach Watson came to us after a stint at Seed Media Group. We were familiar with his work from a project he took on with Stamen alum Sha Hwang on the Center for Urban Pedagogy's Envisioning Development project, and he's been mapping up a storm on projects for the California Health Care Foundation and some projects that Tim O'Reilly got a sneak peak at the other day.
I'm thrilled about all this, as you can probably imagine. We're able to engage at a whole different level than we could even a year ago. On the whole it feels like we're a more, well, professional group than we've ever been, in the sense that the studio these days feel less like a couple of guys smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee in a room trying to figure out what to do next, and more like a real company that pays its bills on time and can think strategically about the present and the future. More of us are coming from places where this kind of work has been done before, people have actual qualifications to do math and cartography and art direction (unlike me), we have several people now who are familiar with the intense time demands of designing for a 24 hour news cycle.
My personal hope for 2012 is to better learn to get out of the way of this incredible group as it does its work, while continuing to lead the creative and business end of things. Having Bill and George, in particular, in Director-level positions means that there are even more parts of the business I can know are being handled, which frees me up to do more of what I like to do.
I'm really looking forward to it!
This last year was a busy one at the studio; good and full, but often busy enough that we were moving too fast to talk about what we did. Which is a shame, because I'm proud of all of it. Having spent the last week or so getting the screenshots together (and doing a few other things as well), I'm finally in a position to actually look at all of it in one place and gather some thoughts. As the number of projects we get involved with grows, it's getting harder to keep a handle on things! But lots of fun.
2011 was the year data visualization and custom mapping moved firmly into the mainstream of digital design work, and our client roster at least partially reflects this trend. We also saw two major museums recognize this kind of work, signaling a growing understanding that this work is moving from the realms of research into genre. Open source projects continued to be a major source of interest and value for our projects, client-facing and otherwise. And we took two first quiet steps into product design based on open data, both directly supporting the efforts of the mapping volunteers at Open Street Map, whose efforts are increasingly being seen as a reliable alternative to propietary geographic solutions. This kind of effort, where we can do good and earn money at the same time, is core to the studio's practice and I'm delighted to be able to still be in a position to support it, ten years on.
So without further ado, this is what we've been up to:
Oprah Winfrey Network: Oprah's Life Class
We designed and built an [interactive companion] to Oprah's return to network television, [Oprah's Life Class]. Class participants used Twitter to post answers to class questions, Oprah favorited the answers she liked the best, a live map showed participants the global nature of the event they were participating in, and Oprah used the piece during a series of live webcasts following the show.
FCC: Broadband Map of the US
[Broadbandmap.gov] collects internet connection data across the US. Funded by the FCC, the project lets viewers compare [connection type], [actual speeds versus those advertised], [availability compared to demographics], and other aspects of their broadband coverage. Working as a subcontractor to Computech, Inc. of Bethesda Maryland, we developed two of the maps found in the map gallery on the National Broadband Map website.
MapQuest: Map Equals Yes
We started off with Foodspotting data; investigating where people had posted food reviews. The project took a brief detour into replacing the names of places with the names of the most popular foods in those places—so "The Mission" became "Secret Breakfast Ice," and that was fun. Not every restaurant (or even city) has reviews, though and we started angling more towards images that showed where the data was instead of what the data was.
This turned into an interesting problem in its own right, and we ended up with maps of [where the buildings are, and only where the buildings are]. MapQuest's support of the OSM's XAPI makes it possible for others to do similar kinds of things with free public data, and the code for the project is open source and [freely available].
Paranormal Activity 3
A map and visualization letting people use Twitter to vote for which city they wanted Paranormal Activity 3 to be released early in. This was a whirlwind project with about a week from initial call to successful delivery, and one where all the [open source work we do] came in super handy. We designed a custom cartographic set (known as "spookymaps" in the studio), Houston took the prize for the highest number of tweets, and in the end PA3 turned out to be the top selling movie of the year.
Trip Advisor iPhone and Android Cartography
We developed artography designed specifically for Trip Advisors' apps for mobile devices, whose small size and high screen resolutions provide their own opportunities and challenges. These maps are themed to work with Trip Advisor branding & styling, and the typography reflects the neighborhood-by-neighborhood focus of their apps. The apps are available to [download from iTunes]
Live web analytics provider [MixPanel] asked us to provide visual design direction and implementation for a new product, User Activity Streams or Streams for short.
A set of maps for Airbnb.com, showing the explosive growth of the service since it started in 2008. Darker city blocks have less listings, brighter blocks have more. It's amazing to see how quickly some areas fill in as more and more people discover they can list their apartments—and to see which areas stay dark.
[Walking Papers] saw continued use by the OSM community and was featured in two museum exhibitions this year: [Hyperlinks], at the [Art Institute of Chicago] and [Talk To Me] at [MoMA in New York]. We started working to extend the project for use in disaster relief scenarios (part of Mike's ongoing [Camp Roberts] adventures); more about this in the coming months.
Our first [iPad app], for National Geographic; an [interactive globe] of the world draped with NGS' iconic cartography; designed with the help of longtime Stamen collaborator [Ryan Alexander] (whose amazing [stereographic streetview] is lighting up the internets lately); one big wet sloppy kiss from Stamen to National Geographic's cartographers.
Knight News Challenge: CityTracking
The CItyTracking project is in mid-swing, with http://dotspotting.org seeing active use. This year we're going to pull the pieces together that we originally [started the project with]: Walking Papers v2, Crimespotting v2 (in particular tying Dotspotting to Crimespotting), Tile Farm (which is already live in [stealth mode] and has some [new tiles available on Mike's blog]), and continuing work on Dotspotting. Everything's [available for download on GitHub], and we gathered 40 planners and visualizers at the inaugural [Data Visualization and Cities] conference.
We covered three live awards show with MTV in 2011: the [Video Music Awards] and [Spike Awards] in Los Angeles, and the [European Music Awards] in Belfast. Some of the visualizations were straight up tweet volume trackers, others mapped celebrity tweets to where they were sitting in the venue, and others tracked interest in photographs of things like Beyonce's baby bump. Unfortunately, Rachel only [met David Hasselhof] at one of the shows, so we're going to try and work on fixing that in the coming year.
Video Music Awards, August
European Music Awards, November
Spike Awards, December
California Healthcare Foundation
We designed two maps for the [California Health Care Foundation], a group that works to improve access to health care information in the state. The first, [All Over the Map], tracks the relative rates of elective procedures like [heart surgery] and [knee replacements], and the second tracks the rates of [surgical site infections] across the state. We're continuing to explore the possibilities of custom cartography with this work; the size of town names, for example, are sized not by how large they are but by [how much surgery is happening there].
A custom [cartographic and interactive suite] for Dutch broadcasting heavies [VPRO] (sort of a cross between Channel 4 in the UK and PBS in the US), to accompany the [Nederland van Boven] TV broadcast this year. The background maps are loosely based on the [toner cartography] we developed for the Knight News Challenge, with some snazzy additions (when did you ever see all-lowercase labels?) and icons as part of our continuing contribution to Nate Kelso's [Natural Earth project].
The Museum of Modern Art: Talk To Me
We designed and built the [online interactive bit] of the full-bore art and culture extravaganza that was the MoMA's [Talk To Me] show. Two Stamen projects, [Walking Papers] and [Prettymaps], were [ http://content.stamen.com/photos_from_the_moma_show part of] [the exhibition].
A data visualization for [One.org], tracking the G8 and EU's spending commitments to Africa. The site represents each member country as a [flag-filled circle], sized according to the relative size of that country's contribution.
Transit Maps for MIG
The [OneBayArea Travel Map] shows you approximately how far you can get from any point in the Bay Area by car, public transit, bike, or on foot, at [particular times of the day].
[Mondo Window], a site for in-flight wifi-enabled travelers, lets you look out the window of a plane and know what you're seeing on the ground. The site has been growing and changing since we helped launch it in April and was written up in the [New York Times] earlier this year.
PrettyMaps on 20x200
Last year's prettymaps project saw a different kind of distribution than is usual for us: you can order physical prints of several of the maps on Jen Bekman's fabulous 20x200.com. The prints are sized according to price, making art affordable for almost everyone. The project benefits the Open Street Map community too; all profits are used to support the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team.
SoftCities: Custom Map Textiles
Our second foray into product design in 2011 took a more, well, tailored turn: SoftCities pulls open data together with fashion design and lets people buy blankets and napkins based on Open Street Map data. The most exciting part about all of this to me (aside from a percentage of the profits going to the Open Street Map project, and that I get to work with my wife Nikki Gunn on a project) is that people are now contributing to OSM specifically to have those roads and stores show up on tangible objects that they can see and hold.
All right, that's enough of that. Happy 2012, everybody!
Aaaaaand, we're back, with another live twitter tracker, this time for MTV's Spike Awards, being held now in LA. Instead of celebrities, we're mostly tracking video game titles, and this means we can take a longer, leaner approach to the visuals than we normally can. And so: a full-width approach, with artwork from the games sized according to volume over time.
The interface gives a nod to the bzzzzt that shows up when something's wrong with the live feed in video games. The more you play with it, the worse this gets; kudos to MTV for letting us riff off of old video games in a presentation of this thoroughly modern phenomenon.