Stamen is a design and technology studio in San Francisco.

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May 20, 2014

Notes from the studio: a pretty damn good week

by Beth

When I first moved to San Francisco from Atlanta a few years ago, the first thing that struck me about the city (aside from the expensive everything) was the pace. People here go so fast, how can they possibly stop and smell the roses? Our speed at Stamen often reflects the pace of this city, and amid all the work, sometimes we forget to stop too. I think that's why we started ordering in lunches, so we wouldn't forget to eat, either.

So today I want to pause, to take a moment to reflect on some of the lovely things that have been happening round these parts just in the past couple weeks.

Eric gave a talk at TEDx Market Street. In addition to showing some Crimespotting maps of the Tenderloin, he spoke about some of the great work he's doing with the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) in the Tenderloin. Much of that work is kept out of the studio (for reasons both legal and practical) so it was a first for me to see him speak so personally and passionately about turning alleyways into gardens, empty storefronts into art galleries, and buying buildings to create rent-controlled artist studios in a city where artists (and Outreach Managers, fwiw) can barely afford to eat, much less live.

Alan also gave a talk at UC Berkeley's DATAedge,where he spoke about designing with data scientists.

We released an open call for our first ever Fellowship! We've done internships before, but this is the first time we'll be working with a student to get them to sink their teeth into a datavis project of their very own. We couldn't be more excited to get this started next month just after EYEO, and to work with friends at Gray Area, Helios, and Obscura over the summer.

Dan and I hung out with California Open Spaces staff and advocates at the Bay Area Open Spaces Conference to talk with them about parks.stamen.com. Social media usage in the parks is a hot topic, and a controversial one: some parks administrators are delighted about seeing social media usage around their parks, while others are less enthused about encouraging technology use in open spaces. Learning about all sides and perspectives is key to the project, so we loved being there and collecting 140-character comments on post-it notes, instead of Tweets and pics.

We hosted yet another wonderful Maptime, which is delightfully taking on a life of it's own all across the country. It inspired this sweet Tweet from @KaseyKlimes:

I've also seen some Maptime loveliness from open source geo educators who who inspire me. Code for America fellow and fierce geolady Lyzi Diamond wrote this great post on Why Maptime, and Tom MacWright made us an animated Maptime GIF.

George and Heather made us some more postcards! We were totally out of postcards. And now we're not! Hooray! #outreachmanagersdreamcometrue

Top it all off with meeting amazing artists U-Ram Choe and Theo Jansen within days of each other (one met off the clock; the other one on it during Scott Kildall's artist talk at Autodesk), I've gotta say the past few weeks have been filled with some loveliness. Let's hope for more like this in the weeks to come.

May 13, 2014

Stamen + Gray Area Partnering on Creative Code Fellowship + Classes! Apply now for Summer 2014!

by Beth

Today is an exciting one: we're pleased to announce that Stamen is offering a summer Fellowship! AND we're doing it in partnership with longtime friends at Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, along with Obscura Digital and Helios.

This is a real opportunity for someone to come and work with us and Gray Area for the summer. The project comes with a modest stipend and will give selected Fellow(s) the opportunity to hone your research and visualization skills with guidance from a world-class team.

The project focus, which we'll decide on together, will focus on data visualization and civic engagement. It should address a contemporary issue (that’s not the Google Bus) within the city of San Francisco, involve data of some kind, and be visually represented within the Fellow’s technical capabilities. Ideally it will make visible something that was previously invisible or not well understood.

The deadline to apply is May 24, so submit your application soon.

Don't have the coding chops yet for a fellowship but want to get started? Fret not, dear artist-to-be! Gray Area is offering a Creative Code Intensive this summer, designed to get you from 0-60 in 10 short weeks. Follow the links below to learn more. If you've got questions not covered on the Creative Code site, feel free to email beth [at] stamen [dot] com.

Best of luck with your application, and happy creative coding!

Apply now for the Fellowship!

Enroll in the Immersive Creative Code Intensive!

Apr 30, 2014

Mapping the Intersection Between Social Media and Open Spaces in California

by Alan

What happens when you map the social media footprint of the great outdoors?

Apr 29, 2014

OpenStreetMap Spring Editathon

by Alan

Last Saturday Stamen hosted the Bay Area edition of the OpenStreetMap Spring Editathon, one of 10 locations across the country.

We had nearly 40 people show up over the course of the day, all of them eager to help contribute to the development of OpenStreetMap, "the Wikipedia of Maps". At Stamen we use OpenStreetMap data in almost all of the maps we make, and we are grateful to the hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the world who have grown the OpenStreetMap database over the years. Hosting editathons is one of the ways we try to give back to the OSM community, and to help grow its membership by introducing new people to the joy of mapping!

Saturday's attendees worked on a variety of projects. One mapped some buildings near his home in Piedmont:

Others worked on tasks for the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, mapping conflict zones in the Central African Republic.

Still others went out into the neighborhood to do some on-the-ground surveying. One contributor used Field Papers to collect data with pen and paper, micromapping the details of street intersections to make OpenStreetMap a more effective navigation tool for the blind.

As always, there was a good mix of experienced OpenStreetMap editors on hand to help the new contributors make their first edits. We'd like to thank everybody who came out to map with us, and we look forward to seeing more of you at the next editathon this summer!

Apr 28, 2014

Stamen DODOcases go international: introducing Paris, London and Tokyo

There's something really lovely about carrying a new, sleek piece of technology in something that looks and feels like a book, and was made using old-school bookbinding methods. This old-meets-new quality of DODOcase is exactly why we at Stamen love them and are delighted to partner with them again!

Just last year, Stamen's maps appeared in DODOcases for the very first time. Now there’s more! Paris, London, and Tokyo have been added to the Stamen DODOcase collection and the DODOcase customizer, along with updated versions of San Francisco, New York and LA.

Each city is available in both Toner and Watercolor styles, setting distinct tones for each city.

A fascination with the aesthetic possibilities for the places where digital and physical intersect have been a theme around here since the beginning, since Eric's notebooks and physical representation of the Whitbread Round the World Sailing Race:

The Tokyo map features the city’s central area. It’s home to Tokyo Bay, the Imperial Palace of Chiyoda, the Rainbow Bridge, Eiffel-inspired Tokyo Tower, and the Tokyo Skytree (the tallest observation tower in the world). The map also shows the beautiful Sumida and Arakawa Rivers as they flow into the Bay.

This view of London shows off the timeless, elegant curves of the River Thames as it cuts through the City of London. Piccadilly Circus, Westminster, the London Eye, Waterloo Station, and iconic Hyde Park all call this area home.

The Watercolor and Toner versions of Paris each center on different areas. The Watercolor map, centered on the 16th Arrondissement, illustrates some of the beautiful parks and green spaces scattered throughout the city. The Bois de Boulonge – the second largest park in Paris – is prominent on the left. Can you find Champs-Élysées and Trocadero?

The stark lines of Paris in Toner feature the River Seine as it snakes throughout the city, intersecting webs of streets, with Central Paris as the focus. Notable spots on the map include the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, Pont Neuf, Montparnasse, and Montmartre. Champs-Élysées and the Eiffel Tower are hiding right behind the label.

Get your hands one from the Stamen Collection page, or make your own in the DODOcase customizer.

Just in time for Mother’s Day. *Hint hint!*

Apr 9, 2014

Stamen Speaking at State of the Map US

We're delighted to be participating again in the American flagship OpenStreetMap conference, State of the Map US, as both sponsors and speakers.

State

Here's the lineup for Saturday:

And for Sunday:

Stamen-sponsored online mapping education group Maptime will also be there, with a lightning talk on Saturday at 5PM, and a Birds of a Feather session on Sunday at 4PM.  For the full shebang of what's happening, take a look at the full conference schedule.

See you in DC!

Mar 27, 2014

New Work: A Conversation About California Parks

by Eric

Today marks the official launch of parks.stamen.com, a project designed to highlight social media from parks and open spaces across California, created in partnership with Electric Roadrunner Lab.

Stories pour out of our parks every day. This project is a first step towards visualizing Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, and Foursquare content using the actual boundaries of our parks, so that we can start to understand how people feel about their favorite open spaces. Taken together these stories make plain that parks are integral to the lives of all Californians. They are evidence for the argument that access to open space must be protected—and expanded—for all and that parks need our support. This is also a tool that park rangers, managers, and advocates can use to understand how people are using parks and to connect with their customers and supporters.

The project's original concept came from writer and educator Jon Christensen, editor of BOOM! A Journal of California and his Electric Roadrunner Lab. Jon sees this work as a gift to the parks and park visitors, an experiment about learning who is using the parks and how. It's the start of a conversation about how we use open spaces in this screen-mediated age. Parks, it turns out, aren't just places where you get away from your everyday life and connect with nature (if they ever were)—they're also places of deep social meaning and engagement with others, and this project is a way of taking a new look at how we do that in the age of mobile everywhere. Our hope is that this project helps park rangers and staff to see your stories, and to clearly show how people are using and enjoying parks across California.

Project initiator Jon Christensen leading a workshop with Stamen and parks stakeholders about social media use in California Parks.

After building some initial prototypes, Stamen and Electric Roadrunner gathered colleagues from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, East Bay Regional Park District, Bay Area Open Space Council, Stephen D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, California State Parks Foundation, Latino Outdoors, and Point Reyes National Seashore to review and discuss how a project like parks.stamen.com could help them in their work. It was a really useful day, and we're listening closely for ideas and feedback from parks folks about the project.

If you'd like to contribute to the conversation, here's how to join in:

  1. Go to parks.stamen.com
  2. Search for your favorite California park and find the park's hashtag, like #YOSE for Yosemite National Park, or #ALCA for Alcatraz Island.
  3. Include that hashtag when you share content on Twitter, Instagram, Flickr or Foursquare
Look for the wander link too. It'll take you to a random open space and hopefully bring you to new parks that you didn't even know existed!

Not in California? Don't have any pics? Wish you had a project like this in your state? We'd still love to hear from you on Twitter, joining the conversation on #caliparks and following @parks_stamen. You can also send us a good old-fashioned email to let us know your thoughts.

Many thanks to Larry Orman and his team at GreenInfo Network for producing the California Protected Areas Database (CPAD), which is undoubtedly the backbone of the project. Thanks are also due to the San Diego Air and Space Museum for letting us use this lovely photo of Yosemite for the homepage backdrop, and to Jamison Wieser from the Noun Project for our handsome arrow icon.

Now go explore!

Mar 20, 2014

Visualizing a failed bitcoin market: The MtGox 500

In late February 2014 MtGox, one of the oldest Bitcoin exchanges, filed for bankruptcy protection. On March 9th a group posted a leak of MtGox data, which included the trading history of users from April 2011 to November 2013. We've been collaborating with Kai Chang & Mary Becica on some visualizations of this data; they're live as of today at http://bitcoin.stamen.com/.

These graphs explore the trade behaviors of the 500 highest volume MtGox users from the leaked data set. These are the Bitcoin barons, wealthy speculators, dueling algorithms, greater fools, and many more who took bitcoin to the moon.

Bitcoin Barons

Barons are characterized by their early start in the market followed by big sells at higher prices. Initial trades with many sells suggest the user mined bitcoin before entering the Gox market.

Dueling Bots

Automated traders can build up a large volume by making thousands of small trades. Vertical stripes of sells across a wide price range may also indicate algorithmic activity.

Glitch in the System

User 15 purchases large volumes of bitcoin at seemingly random prices. Why do so many traders sell at low prices to User 15? Why does User 15 buy at astronomically high prices? Are these faulty trades or an algorithm gone mad?

Greater Fools

The mark of the Greater Fool is a lonely green patch where the price is highest. Some of these may be investment groups encouraged by the Bitcoin Senate Hearings in November.

For more visuals (we've mapped the top 500), please see http://bitcoin.stamen.com/. You can take a look at some previous visualizations of markets Stamen has done here and here.

Mar 13, 2014

The Parks Conservancy Map: The Baking of a Multi-Layered Data Cake

by Seth and Beth

Back in December, we launched a new map for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The goal was to help people get to the parks and once there, around them, and to create a framework for Parks Conservancy staff, volunteers, and partners to add additional data and content as needed. At first, custom cartography wasn’t even on the list, but in hindsight, it really made the project.

Here’s how it went down:

The project kicked off with a few key goals; at the top of the list was increasing the use of transit to get to the parks. We quickly realized that this constraint meant using something that both was familiar and incorporated great transit data. Stylistically, we wanted to allude to the classic maps from the National Park Service (NPS)–ample terrain, lots of green, and bold black iconography.

By National Park Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Google Maps has some of the best transit data, and its usual look and feel isn’t far from that of NPS (not to mention being immediately recognizable due to its overwhelming popularity). Plus, Google provides tools to customize their maps to fit custom color schemes. With all roads leading to Google Maps, that’s the initial direction we set in on.

The Parks Conservancy’s original map interface, which we were hired to redesign.

This assumption was turned on its head, however, when we began to incorporate the Parks Conservancy’s trail data. It turns out that trails are highly entwined with roads, at least in the Styled Map Wizard. Replacing Google’s trail data with data from the Parks Conservancy meant hiding some of Google’s road data, which in no way would help anyone to make their way to the parks. We also realized that by using a Google base map it would be more difficult to specifically highlight areas managed by the Parks Conservancy and that the points of interest (POI) baked into their base layer (some of which we wanted, but not all) distracted from the parks.

This is when we realized that we needed to go custom. There was no other way we could incorporate the variety of datasets from the Parks Conservancy–trails, trailheads, overlooks, parking areas, bathrooms–without doing that clunky, terrible thing where you just pile a bunch of data over a general purpose map and hope the user can just create clarity on their own. *shudder*

Going custom meant working primarily with OpenStreetMap (OSM), our go-to source for free and open source spatial data. There’s a ton of data there, but we were still missing terrain, which was going to be critical in representing the lovely shaded mountainous regions throughout the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). We’d been given copies of some high-res elevation data produced by the ARRA Golden Gate LIDAR Project (a collaboration between the US Geological Survey and San Francisco State University) but realized that processing and using this data would put us way over time and budget. So we went with USGS’s lower resolution National Elevation Dataset (NED) (we also use it for Terrain on maps.stamen.com), which provided the soft, rolling texture we were going for.

A comparison of our map, on the left, and Google’s, on the right.

The end result looks very familiar–similar road coloration and widths–and using the Google Maps API for functionality, it works like a Google map. You might not be able to tell the difference immediately, but we hope you’ll appreciate that all the bathrooms are both clearly represented on the map as well as being routable when you need to find one in a hurry.

As simple as the map looks, we used a wide variety of data sources under the hood:

  • OSM, for the transportation network, most place names, and secondary green areas like playing fields and golf courses. We made some edits around the Presidio and Marin Headlands to correct some one-way streets and inaccessible sections of road.
  • The California Protected Areas Database (CPAD), for all open space areas (federal, state, county, and municipal parks). We drew these before adding NPS boundaries to provide texture and context without distracting from the map’s primary focus: the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
  • GGNRA areas were sourced from NPS.
  • Coastlines and water features were drawn using using data from the National Hydrography Dataset (NHD).
  • Transit and Trails provided all of the data for the trailheads and trips (such as Meander in Marin, visible as an overlay), which are curated by users of T&T, including Michael Norelli and other members of the Parks Conservancy staff.
  • The GGNPC and GGNRA GIS departments provided trail alignments and names as well as notable features present in the GGNRA (bathrooms, overlooks, cafes, etc.).
  • All additional data came from the Parks Conservancy, via their GIS lead (and wonderful collaborator) Michael Norelli. He also sent us the park names, campgrounds, overlooks, restrooms, POIs, trails, and building footprints throughout the GGNRA.

We used TileMill, PostGIS, GDAL, and other tools to combine these datasets into a coherent whole. In order to facilitate updating and repurposing, we created four layers and baked them together using bits of Map Stack. Here they are from bottom to top:

1. The background layer, containing park and protected area boundaries, beaches, and other solid polygons.

2. The processed terrain layer, combining hillshades and slope maps. At 60% opacity, it creates subtle shadows of terrain, indicating the natural landscape without obscuring the features most important to the Parks Conservancy.

3. The feature layer, containing water, the transport network, building footprints, and boundary lines. Land is transparent, allowing the background layer to show through.

4. Labels are rendered separately, giving us the ability to sandwich dynamic data (which we didn’t end up doing) and provide interactivity (using UTFGrids).

Here's how it all stacks up:

In the few months since launch, we’ve had lots of compliments (thank you!) as well as some questions. Many of them were about cartography, and have been answered above (we hope). Here are some more:

Did you have to create your own database?
Yes we did. No, it has not exploded yet, and we have Fastly, Heroku, and Amazon Web Services to thank for that.

With so many data layers, were you able to do any rapid prototyping?
Yes. Once we loaded the data into PostGIS, we used a combination of QGIS and TileMill to explore and style the data. Once we had a rough look and feel, we split the layers out (as above) and used Map Stack to introduce and tweak the terrain layer.

Why not use satellite imagery?
Great question, and we thought about this one a lot. In the end, although the extreme detail would allow for people to see the natural space in great detail, we would have lost the clarity we were going for.

What parts of the project are going to be open source?
Although we’d like for all of it to be, we’d rather purposefully release smaller chunks of documented, organized code than everything all at once in all its chaotic glory. With that in mind, the first things you should look for are:

That's all we can think to tell you about the cartography for now. Have more questions? We'd love to hear from you.

Feb 26, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities’ Maps: Dataviz is a Garden, not Architecture

By Eric and Beth, cross posted from Markets for Good

This post is a check on both our ambitions and our processes. The uses of data visualization are different according to whether the goal is to communicate a specific thought for a single moment, e.g. as a poster, or the goal is to provide a durable tool for social change. It should be mighty safe to say that we want the latter, i.e. to take full advantage of the ability to create dynamic, interactive, real-time stories that make data plain and useful. Eric Rodenbeck, CEO & Creative Director, and Beth Schechter, Education and Outreach, Stamen Design offer a fundamental insight to inform data strategy: think about the future – how you will maintain your visualization outputs and capabilities (both human and technical) on a shifting landscape.

The data visualization community is a large, diverse, and growing one. As different as we all are, there is a vein that runs through all of us: earnest pursuit of the truth, love of information, and desire to share it in a beautiful, clear, understandable way. It is from this desire that the data visualizers produce some of their most impactful work, like Periscopic’s U.S. Gun Deaths in 2013, or Hyperakt and Ekene Ijeoma collaboration The Refugee Project. For us, one of these works is Crimespotting.

Crimespotting began as an independent guerrilla project, organizationally attached only to Stamen. We realized that it was important for residents of Oakland – a Bay Area city with a crime-addled history – to have more information about the crime in their neighborhood than just seeing police cars whiz by, sirens ablaze. Former Stamen partner Mike Migurski started scraping the Oakland Police Department’s API and sorting police reports by time, block, and report type. After Chauncey Bailey, a prominent local journalist, was assassinated in broad daylight in downtown Oakland, we decided to make this data public on an interactive map.

Not long after launch, two things happened. First, the City of Oakland turned off our access to their servers, which effectively shut down the project until we were able to connect with the city’s crime data department, who eventually turned into one of the project’s biggest supporters.

Second, the City of San Francisco asked us to create an officially sanctioned version of the project for San Francisco, which we did do. The San Francisco instance was launched in 2009, with Mayor Gavin Newsom at our side.

All of this happened over half a decade ago. In the years that followed, the project apexed with tremendous impact and support – including coverage in the New York Times and this video with Hans Rosling. But over the years, the project started wavering. Oakland’s API has sputtered to the point of being nonfunctional, rendering Oakland Crimespotting totally spotless. (see below) Although the San Francisco version has fared slightly better thanks to Stamen partner Shawn Allen and Jeff Johnson at the SF Department of Technology, it’s also broken several times. Only in the past couple of weeks have Shawn and Jeff found time to work on fixing it amid a medical leave. If not for these volunteered efforts, the San Francisco version would be as comatose as Oakland’s.

Watching the static nature of this project play out is painful, as is answering countless emails asking about why they are broken and when they will be fixed. We want to say that it will happen soon, but we know that reality dictates otherwise. We also know that it’s no longer acceptable to tell the public, “Sorry, it’s just that the code is creaky and the database is full.” We’ve come a long way since 2007, and the public expects better. They expect it to just work, and rightfully so.

I tell you this story because at this point it’s as archetypical as [a damsel in distress]. Too often we build works like these, only to see them falter and fail as browsers upgrade and technology evolves.

If you build a bookshelf, you take the time to design it once, to build it once, to finish and install it once. Dynamic data visualizations and other Web-based works are not quite the same. They’re more like plants, sprouted from the seed of an idea. Data visualization in particular also has a beautiful blossoming to it, one that happens naturally in response to the data, illustrated as pixels and color.

If you plant a flower in a garden and then never give it water or light, it will in fact die. Unless, of course, it happens to placed in just the perfect spot, in which case it will need to be pruned. Either way, some kind of tending is always required.

We don’t always think of digital works in the same way, perhaps because their metaphor of creation more closely resembles that of a built object, like a bookcase or building. But even buildings need maintenance, and after so many years, the shelves on the bookcase may falter and need new ones. We need to be more conscious about this aspect of dynamic data visualization, at the outset.

I urge of all our clients, in particular those who are making works for the public (which is most of them), to consider plans for maintenance. Luckily a lot has changed since 2007, and now more of our clients have some kind of web or technology team to take this work on. It’s part of their operating strategy. Clients in the nonprofit and municipal centers typically do not have those kinds of resources, and if they do, they are usually limited. What’s troubling is that these are the clients typically commissioning some of the most socially relevant work, yet their funding models typically only call for the build, and nothing beyond that. Nonprofits have the advantage of being able to fundraise (which is a TON of work), whereas governmental departments must rely on strict, slow process and very limited budgets.

If you are one of these bodies and you want to make socially relevant work, then we urge you too to think about how these works will live beyond the build and to come up with a plan (or at least funding model) for how it can be maintained. If not, all that work and money and time is going into something which is sadly, inevitably doomed. It’s not enough to visualize data, or to make it public: as data visualization moves from a flashy experimental genre to one that the public relies on, we need to come up with solutions that let them grow and change over time—to take the time to water and prune, just like we do our gardens.

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