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Apr 4, 2011

Stamen in the New York Times

Stamen was featured in the New York Times business section yesterday. Like, the actual paper version of the paper, the one with the crossword puzzle (thanks John Poisson for the photo):

Three things are insanely great about this:

  • We're there alongside industry smarties like Hans Rosling, Ben Shneiderman, and Jim Bartoo. This is good company.
  • We got to draw some attention to our friends at MondoWindow, whose new site is totally kick ass.
  • My mom called me yesterday and said that not only does she understand what I do now, she's also proud of me. Thanks, Mom!

Mar 9, 2011

Mondo WIndow: what you're looking at out your airplane window

Today's the day to announce, along with Laughing Squid and CNET, the public beta of Mondo Window, which lets you see what you're looking at out your airplane window. As far as we know, this is the first site designed specifically for use with in-flight internet, but those bragging rights are less important than the fact that now YOU CAN FIND OUT WHAT YOU'RE LOOKING AT OUT THE WINDOW OF THE PLANE YOU ARE FLYING IN.


The idea is that, if you're online and in the air (and the Mondo Window guys have been blowing my mind with the technical, infrastructural and business models that allow this to happen), you can access the various APIs that track where all the planes are. And if you can do that, and you know what plane you're on, Mondo Window can more or less know where your plane is. And if we know that, and we know more or less how high your plane is, then we know what you can see out the window on both sides of the plane. And then we can show you relevant Wikipedia and Flickr content, and Bob's your uncle!

We've been working hard on the project with Greg Dicum, Tyler Freeman and Tyler Sterkel at our studio for the past two months, in a rapid cycle of conceptualize-develop-deploy cycle that often turned over in a single day. The team took over one of the extra rooms off the main corridor, a situation that made me really happy as it's the kind of thing I hoped would happen we moved into a too-big space, and I'm really pleased that Mike led this effort inside the studio.

The site was launched with an eye towards capturing the attention of the rampaging hordes of geeks heading to South by SouthWest on nerd birds in the coming days, so we've concentrated on providing content for the parts of the country that people are likely to be flying over as they take commercial flights to Austin. I love this map that Greg drew for us at the early stages of the project, showing the parts of the country that people are likely to be flying over as they head to Austin:

Of course, it doesn't cover the routes that the investors from Jackson Hole are taking in their private jets, but that's the web for you.

Feb 28, 2011

Andy Warhol's Screen Tests at the Museum of Modern Art

I'm a little late in posting about our new project with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, designed to accompany the Museum's exhibit on Andy Warhol's screen tests.The project was designed to let the public participate in a central part of Warhol's output:

The films were made between 1964 and 1966 at Warhol's Factory studio in New York City. Subjects were captured in stark relief by a strong key light, and filmed by Warhol with his stationary 16mm Bolex camera on silent, black and white, 100-foot rolls of film at 24 frames per second. The resulting two-and-a-half-minute film reels were then screened in 'slow motion' at 16 frames per second. [Wikipedia]

You can participate in the project yourself by adding your video to the . Jeff and Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up by Bob Colacello, former editor of Warhol's Interview magazine, and he talks alot about how Andy always tried to remove his hand from the process of making art, preferring to put the machines in the way and watch what happened. So it feels like a very appropriate gesture to be continuing the project by automating the process of Warhol-izing (or maybe Factory-izing) videos that people upload on Flickr and standing by to watch the results.

I've been sitting on the project for a while without blogging about it because we ran into some technical snags making the videos linkable, and I wanted to follow through on the idea that the Screen Tests started with:

Many of the Screen Tests were arranged in different compilations such as 13 Most Beautiful Women, 13 Most Beautiful Boys, and 50 Fantastics and 50 Personalities. This was done with the intention of pleasing certain audiences who Warhol was exhibiting his art to. [Wikipedia]

It's one thing to link to a nice-looking grid of images of people looking into the camera, but it's a much better thing to be able to link directly to a Screen Test of Jeff:

And ... wait for it ... it's another thing entirely to be able to link directly to a Screen Test of a cat, which apparently showed up 3 hours or so after the site launched. Which is very good.

Feb 16, 2011

Citytracking Redux, and we're Info-Groovy

We're slowly putting HQ2 together after a horde of 40 urbanists, developers, writers and city administrators (btw what collective noun would be better here—a murmuration of urbanists? a obstinacy of developers? a labour of writers? a complication of city administrators?) descended on the studio for the first City Tracking: Data and Cities conference.

I had a grand time, and hope others did as well. Everything went off without a hitch, we had some surprise visitors from the City of San Francisco ("you can have that data, but it's going to take 40,000 subpoenas to get it" was one of the more memorable lines), Deborah and Julie ran the whole thing like a well-oiled machine, and the place looked strange and new, like a proper conference with flowers on the tables and everything!

Jordan Salinger and Colleen McHugh from SPUR were on hand recording everything and did a masterful job tweeting during the event, and #citytracking had some interesting traffic as well. We're collating that material now & hope to have something special to distribute soon.

And in other news, Stamen is one of Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies of 2011. which is always good to know. Fast Company's shown us tons love lately, but never in print before. So: hooray!

Feb 9, 2011

Data and Cities Conference: February 9-11, 2011, San Francisco

We're hosting our first conference on Data Visualization and Cities, to explore both the current state and the near horizons of this up-surging field in a convergence of practitioners in the field, government data and stakeholders, innovators and visionaries. More about the gathering and the Knight Foundation (who's paying for all of this) at

We're mixing formats:

  • Stamen designers and developers demonstrating what we're doing and where we see things going
  • Government cadre and data vis practitioners sharing their recent wins, goals, and barriers to success
  • Panel discussions with people eager and able to identify issues and debate their solutions
  • Workshops comprised of different groups striving for common solutions

This is an exciting time for cities working with data, as the literacy level for visualization appears to be rising by the day, driving growing demand and opportunity for new and interesting ways for people to interact with their digital civic infrastructure. And as the field grows, we're also experiencing challenges and real questions on the role that cities take in providing the base layer of services and truths that residents and workers can rely on. We're looking forward to examining these phenomena in a setting where the mutual goal is to make a difference now and build the pathways to more digitally efficient services throughout urban America.

We'll be blogging here and tweeting about the event during the next 2 days. Jordan Salinger from SPUR (who's doing the lion's share of blogging during the event) has posted his first dispatch here.

Jan 13, 2011

Walking Papers at the Art Institute of Chicago

Walking Papers, the project that lets you draw on a paper map and easily get the data into Open Street Map (and which Mike launched last year), is part of the Hyperlinks exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago You can read all about it at the Institute, but the gist of it is:

The Internet has undoubtedly transformed the world we live in; its unprecedented access to and layering of information lead to greater interaction and engagement, and a complex understanding of our place in the world. However, this innovative method of accumulating and remixing data is also occurring across the fields of architecture and design. A fluid exchange between these disciplines—fueled by advances in production processes, materials research, social and environmental concerns, and influences drawn from scientific and biological research—is resulting in new attitudes to architecture and design that are opening up these subject areas and stretching their range of influence.

We're grateful to Martha Pettit, who heroically curated our collection of hundreds of printouts into something museum-worthy, for all her hard work on the project. Also, Mike's added a multi-page "atlas" which is worth looking in to if you're interested in how the project is progressing. Thanks to Nate Kelso for the photos.

Dec 11, 2010

Cheerio Maps

Cheerio Maps is a view of housing data from that we (and when I say we, I mean Aaron) visualized in early 2010. The maps look at how the sizes, prices and ages of houses vary across the San Francisco Bay Area, and uses circles of different sizes to denote greater and lesser values. In the first image below: Housing prices in San Francisco. Each dot is a house for sale, and the big green dot behind everything else is a mega-mansion in the Pacific Heights neighborhood.

View Project.

There are three things about the project:

Thing 1: Colors

The colors are arbitrary—unlike the maps on Trulia Hindsight, there's not a consistent linear scale that lets you say that blue or green dots are pricier or older or smaller. This makes it easier to differentiate between dots that similar, but not identical, values. (It also looks really strange and cool). All dots that are (about) the same size have the same color, though. So all of the bluish dots in the image below are about the same price as one another, and the same goes for the pink ones. The fact that they're all mostly the same size means that this is a fairly homogeneously priced part of the Bay:


Whereas here, Piedmont (the larger dots in the upper right) clearly pop out as a neighborhood of pricey homes surrounded by less expensive properties:


Thing 2: Constancy

The dots never change size; a 10 pixel wide dot will always be a 10 pixel wide dot, regardless of how far zoomed in you get. So the very large yellow dot in the center of each of the following 6 views (in Tiburon is always the same house, regardless of zoom level:




What this gets us is, primarily, context. So for any given view, it's very apparent how varied the price (in this view) of homes are. In this case, at a local level, there's some variance (the yellow is twice the size of the purple) but the yellow is dominant for a while—until we zoom out to include San Francisco where the Green Giant overwhelms the scene (and speaks to the incredible variance in house prices in that city).

Thing 3: The Bigness

The dots are bigger than they'd normally be in a more traditionally-looking structure like Polymaps' k-means clustering or Protovis' circle packing. This is partially to take a good look at the incredible disparity in real estate prices in the Bay Area. A view like the image below, of prices in El Grenada (near Moss Beach and Half Moon Bay) shows a very expensive house right in the same neighborhood as a group of much more moderately-priced homes.


Or the ways in which the mansions of Los Altos and [Stanford] ride hard against the cheaper homes of East Palo Alto:


Those overlapping concentric circles, with multiple places for sale at a single address? Those are condominiums in downtown San Francisco; and the wider the range of colors and sizes, the more diverse (financially) a building you're looking at:


And So

There's more; these views can be also sliced by age of the property and size, each of which allow for their own kinds of insights.


Dec 8, 2010

Shadows Searching in the Knight

There's alot to talk about as we continue to move forward with Dotspotting. I'm going to try and blog a bit more frequently about it and describe individual aspects of the project, instead of waiting for a big long blog post that takes me all afternoon, and see how that goes.


So yesterday I talked about basic uploading and the addition of new information to address-based dots in .csv files. Once those files are in a sheet, we've got basic search enabled for individual dots inside that sheet, and you can do a couple of different things there. Right now search is only enabled on a few fields: latitude and longitude. What this means is you can start to sort your dots in various ways based on location. It's all still super alpha-beta-disco-ball, of course, and very straightforward, but here's an example.

The map above is from a sheet of mine, called Cabspotting December 8 2010 - 3. I downloaded several cab tracks from the here and here and you can look at other ones I've made here.

The southernmost dot in that sheet is here, down at the airport, with a latitude of 37.614670, and the northernmost one is here, with a latitude of 37.806430, up near Fisherman's Wharf. I can search for these latitudes in the sheet, and it'll give me dots at those various degrees of north/south. It looks like this:

At 37.6, down near the airport:

At 37.7, coming up the peninsula and into the CIty:

And at 37.8, up in Russian Hill and Fisherman's Wharf:

The searches only work on latitude and longitude now, and we're talking about how to make it useful to search other fields as well. Aaron and I talked today about things like being able to generate a list of the neighborhoods that the taxi passed through, exporting the results of these searches, having unique URLs for each of these searches, and to be able to do searches like "show me all the dots further north than 37.717950." We'll get there. Part of the point of the project is for us to do this work in the open, so people can see how the process works and weigh in on what we do next. If you'd like to give us any feedback, we're going to try using the dotspotting twitter account to talk in public about the project.

OK, that's search. For now.

Dec 7, 2010

Working on the Knight Moves

Today we're announcing the public beta of Dotspotting, a project designed to help people work with geographic data in ways that are intelligible, straightforward and useful in the real world. You can sign up for an account or just take a peek around at

Dotspotting is the first project Stamen is releasing as part of Citytracking, a project funded by the Knight News Challenge (more here and here). It's being headed up by Stamen's own Aaron Cope with input from most of the rest of the team. We're making tools to help people gather data about cities and make that data more legible. Our hope is to do this in a way that's simple enough for regular people to get involved, but robust enough for real research to happen along the way.

The basic idea

There's currently a whole chain of elements involved in building digital civic infrastructure for the public, and these are represented by various Stamen projects and those of others. At the moment, the current hodgepodge of bits—including APIs and official sources, scraped websites, sometimes-reusable data formats and datasets, visualizations, embeddable widgets etc.—is fractured, overly technical and obscure, held in the knowledge base of a relatively small number of people, and requires considerable expertise to harness. That is, unless you're willing to use generic tools like Google Maps, and agree to terms of service which allow them to share your content with other people. We want to change this. Visualizing city data shouldn't be this hard, or this proprietary, or this generic.

So the first part of this project is to start from scratch, in a 'clean room' environment. We've started from a baseline that's really straightforward, tackling the simplest part: getting dots on maps, without legacy code or any baggage. Just that, to start. Dots on maps. And then we'll share that work with the public, and see what happens next.

The problem

But dots on maps implies a few other things: getting the locations, putting them on there, working with them, and—crucially—getting them out in a format that people can work with.

We've had several interactions with different city agencies so far, and while the situation has changed alot in the last few years, we've realized that, for the foreseeable future, people aren't going to stop using Word and Excel and Pages and Numbers to work with their data, or even stop using paper. It's made us think that if this stuff is really going to work out in the long run, we need to focus our thinking on projects that can consume as well as export things that cities and people actually use and use now, and not stick with projects that have to rely on fancy APIs or the latest database flavor.

It's great that San Francisco and New York are releasing structured XML data, but Oakland is still uploading Excel spreadsheets (it's actually awesome that they do), and the Tenderloin police lieutenants are printing out paper maps and hand-placing colored stickers on them. At some point, if this really is the way things are going, we're going to need to meet the needs of actual functioning city agencies—and while APIs are great and necessary, for now that means Excel spreadsheets and Word docs. It also means being able to easily read in data that people have uploaded to google maps, interface with SMS systems like those that Ushahidi are pioneering. And it means being able to export to things like PowerPoint and Keynote, scary as that may seem.

What we've launched with is the baseline work that's being done to make this stuff internet-native. There's a login and permissions system that pretty much works. Uploading .csv files full of dots works. Each dot has an HTML page of its own, for example, like they do on Crimespotting. Collections of dots (we're calling them sheets) work, and you can export them. And there are dots on maps.

Getting started

The first thing to do is to take a look at the site's FAQ, which has detailed instructions on how the whole thing fits together. Where we're at now is that you can upload comma-separated value files, or .csv files, containing geographic information, and dotspotting will try and put them on maps. You can write these files in any text editor, or export them directly from a spreadsheet program like Excel.

The first and simplest thing I could think of was to take the two locations that Stamen has had out studios, on opposite corners of the lovely 16th and Mission plaza. That csv file is here, and it looks like this:

"2017 Mission St San Francisco CA", HQ2
"3012 16th Street San Francisco California", HQ1

The top line (address,description) is the title line; it basically describes the lines that are to follow. So for every other line in the document, the first item will be considered an address, and the second item will be considered a description, separated by a comma ("comma-separated values," remember).

I uploaded the file here, and here's what I get as a result, on a map:

We're calling the resulting collection of maps that results from an upload a "sheet," partly because we think it'll make sense later on for people to think of these as spreadsheets or other documents, and partly because Aaron wants to use this image on the site:

Happy Teeth 6

What I also get, in addition to the map, are two html pages, one for each dot that's been created (there's a dot for every line in my original file). And those dots have significantly more information now than they did when they were uploaded: where previously there was just an address and a description, there's now a bunch of other stuff, like latitude and longitude of course, but also things like aWhere On Earth ID, or more simply "woeid," that tells me that these dots are in zip code 94110. So I'm getting a lat/long lookup as well as the addition of some other sample geographically-relevant information. And, crucially, I can export this data, which now looks like this:

77171,271,12,public,"2010-12-07 23:27:53",37.764673,-122.419621,
    9q8yy6bg0j63,woeid:12797161,,"2017 Mission St San Francisco CA",HQ2,12797161
77173,271,12,public,"2010-12-07 23:27:53",37.765042,-122.419930,
    9q8yy6bt2fh4,woeid:12797154,,"3012 16th Street San Francisco California",HQ1,12797154

More like that

There's more to talk about, but that'll do for a first post. As Aaron so nicely puts it, HEY LOOK! THIS IS THE SUPER ALPHA-BETA-DISCO-BALL VERSION ( tell me more ), and we're very much thinking of this as a first pass, with lots of missing pieces. Matt Mullenweg says that "if you’re not embarrassed when you ship your first version you waited too long" and there are worse people to listen to.

Whoosh! Off we go. We'd love it if you visit the project and let us know what you think.

Nov 30, 2010

Walking Papers Developments

Since Mike launched Walking Papers I've been fascinated with the aesthetic quality of the scans that people have been uploading. Last weekend, when he and Aaron were down at Camp Roberts working on the project, I asked him to make a change to the way that scans are displayed so that the maps are easier to look at as a group, and as visual & cultural artifacts. Cause, you know, lists are nice, but.

Turns out: he did it, and they're lovely! (and if you adjust the url parameters you can do things like look at 200 of them at a time, which is nice.)

For me so far the most interesting thing has been the ability to look at the project as a whole instead of as a set of discreet incidents. One day I'll get my wish of seeing them on a map, but for now, there are 4 categories - could you call them genres? - that leap out:


Scans that are just stuffed with notation. There's something about the obsessive filling in of blocks and gaps that grabs me & makes me think about the whole process that goes into the making of these, over time:

Some of these are dense enough that the authors have included keys in the margins so you can tell what the numbers refer to:


Some people've been taking other maps and using the project as a way not so much to annotate the printed-out maps as to easily drop existing maps into the Open Street Map coordinate space. I especially like the first map below, an historic map of the Congo:

And some have patched satellite imagery in, using them as base maps to (presumably) trace or otherwise use the imagery. Maybe these two are sub-genres:


These have been run through some kind of fax machine or scanner, and have all the artifacts of that technology intact:


And visually the ones that leap out at me the most are those for which it's apparent that there's a piece of paper here, that someone's folded and crumpled and perhaps stuck a digital artifact that has some knowledge about where it is embedded in it in their pocket, and really used it:

The intent of the project is mostly about editing the maps and improving Open Street Map, of course—but there's also a kind of beauty going on here builds on top of that, that comes out of the raw material and allows space for someone's hand.

I used to describe my notebooks as being about taking a break from the smooth digital surfaces of Stamen's regular digital work by getting involved in the kinds of markings that hands make. Walking Papers takes this a bit further by providing a way for people to interact with the precision of digital maps by drawing on pieces of paper that know where they are, so to speak.

I still love taking polaroid pictures; there's something about the fact that this one object was *actually there* when the photos was taken that make it a very special kind of record. My journals often have lemon juice or coffee stains or dirt from a place rubbed into the pages for this same reason. When I look at the crumpled up pieces of paper that are scanned into Walking Papers, or the ones that have satellite images stitched into them, I'm reminded that maps are made, by people, in places, sometimes by hand. I really like that about the project. And there's a quotidian quality, an accidental beauty that comes from tapping in to a flow and letting it run and choosing the moments where the lovely is.


This is also probably the appropriate time to talk about TenderMaps, a project that Sha Hwang and Zain Memon (with help from Mike, and others) put together at the Great Urban Hack that happened around the same time at GAFFTA. They dreamt up the idea of telling stories about the neighborhood, got an instance of Working Papers up and running, interviewed people in the Tenderloin and got them to draw on maps, and built a lovely interface for it, all in 2 days. There's a certain kind of aliveness that I get out of feeling intimidated by smart young people, and these guys scare the crap out of me.


This is also probably the appropriate time to talk about an art and design show we're participating in at the gracious invitation of Zoe Ryan, at the Art Institute of Chicago called Hyperlinks, which opens on December 12 in the main galleries there. From the Institute's announcement:

The Internet has undoubtedly transformed the world we live in; its unprecedented access to and layering of information lead to greater interaction and engagement, and a complex understanding of our place in the world. However, this innovative method of accumulating and remixing data is also occurring across the fields of architecture and design. A fluid exchange between these disciplines—fueled by advances in production processes, materials research, social and environmental concerns, and influences drawn from scientific and biological research—is resulting in new attitudes to architecture and design that are opening up these subject areas and stretching their range of influence.

With an eye to these inventive links between practices, this exhibition presents more than 30 projects that span from architecture and furniture to multimedia and conceptual design from an international group of architects and designers, including Florencia Pita/mod, Jurgen Mayer H., R&Sie(n), Experimental Jetset, Emergent/Tom Wiscombe, Arik Levy, Studio Makkink & Bey, Shigeru Ban, Joris Laarman, Nacho Carbonell, and Matali Crasset. Not always intended as ends in themselves, these multidisciplinary practices are often experiments that motivate reflection on the values, mores, and practices often overlooked in society. Projects such as Nacho Carbonell’s 2009 Lover’s Bench poetically explore private and public space, while the design studio Stamen’s 2010 social mapping project,, provides a public forum for updating online information. Architect Keiichi Matsuda’s 2009 film Augmented (hyper)Reality: Domestic Robocop investigates the potential of environments enhanced by advanced technologies, and Troika’s 2010 Plant Facts Plant Fiction demonstrates the possible ecological benefit of natural and artificially generated species of plants. Hyperlinks also includes specially commissioned works such as inventive new furniture elements by architect Greg Lynn and a multimedia project by Simon Heijdens that attunes the ambience of an interior space to exterior climatic conditions.

Diverse in perspective and output, the works included in Hyperlinks make clear that by fostering rigorous cross-disciplinary relations, architects and designers are carving out new avenues for experimentation that are helping shape insightful solutions to urgent issues, ultimately enhancing the quality of our daily lives.

The show starts on December 11, and a few of us are heading out to see it, so if you're going to be in (brr) Chicago in mid-December, please get in touch. And there will be some educational events taking place around the project starting in January that I'll post more about as we know. Thanks to everyone who's participated in the project so far!

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