Visualization: It is The Thing this Spring at Maryland
Tuesday, January 28, 2014

If you happen across the main page of this site this first week of the Spring semester you will see the Not To Be Missed At Maryland segment features an announcement about the Campus Visualization Partnership, the creation of which was announced towards the end of last semester and which formally kicks off this Spring semester with a lecture series. This is a lecture series that will bring in speakers from outside the University as well as forging connections between scholarly disciplines on campus through presentations. As an example, I will represent the Collaboratory and Art History on February 18th as part of multi-speaker session introducing the audience to visualization spaces and approaches with which probably they are not familiar. Ben Shneiderman, of HCIL, Amitabh Varshney, director of UMIACS, and Fran LoPresti, Deputy CIO in the Division of Information Technology kick off the series next Tuesday, Februrary 4 at noon. You must register (it is free), but if you cannot make it physically, all of the lectures in the series will be livestreamed and recorded for asynchronous playback. Go to for more information.

This opportunity is an exciting one for us here in Art History to engage with the burgeoning science and art of visualization and its most visible practitioners in the sciences (hard and social) and to make them aware of the forms of visualizations with which we historically are concerned (think models of ancient spaces or in situ perspectives) as well as those that approach those they understand as visualization (think the network visualizations of museum metadata Matt Lincoln has presented in the past year). Try to make it to this series. It will be worth the investment of time.


A good example of journalism harnessing digital's inherent power
Wednesday, October 16, 2013

We all are familiar with how journalism is being transformed by the digitally networked world in which most of us live. Journalists tweet breaking news (Robert Costa's insight into the thinking, plotting and planning by House Republicans during this shutdown is an important example); smartphone video relays to us events around the globe of note; in many cases, we link to stories via news aggregators or other hyper-linked portals that take us directly to a story rather than discovering it as part of a comprehensive perusal of a publication, say the New York Times, which change in delivery of content causes genuine anxiety about the long-term viability of these publications. Still, when we read a story online, the format of that story - headline, byline, text, inline pics - is much the same as we would read in the physical paper. Indeed, there is something reassuring about this format stability for most all of the news that we read. On the other hand, it is refreshing to see a really good, really effective bit of journalism that, in its format and mode of delivering the story, can only be described as born digital. This article on the M10 highway in Russia connecting St. Petersburg and Moscow, its crumbling state of repair and echoes of its decay found in the surrounding countryside is a bit of journalism - a reporter's notebook or travelogue - that lodged itself into this reader's consciousness with a particular forcefulness because of the sequencing of the narrative: context-setting map at the beginning of the story and a dynamic roadmap with placenames in the left margin that progress south to Moscow as one progress south through the article text, with embedded video and/or pictures carrying a good deal of narrative freight. Obviously this type of storytelling takes an entire team, with the producers (Mike Bostock, Shan Carter and Leslye Davis) equalling in number the team of reporter, photographer and videographer (Ellen Barry, Dmitry Kostyukov, Ben C. Solomon) who collected the story, but the result - good storytelling and good journalism - seems worth it. Literally worth it, as in worth the subscription I pay for the privilege of unlimited reading of the NYTimes every month. Maybe there is hope yet...

Hey, if you miss the Smithsonian during this blighted government shutdown, content yourself with this decent digilog of the Freer (yeah, I know analog should be the proper term; I'm trying something here!)


Ridiculous (in a good way)
Tuesday, September 17, 2013

And now for a different sort of data visualization, this one wearing the clothing of art. The picture of a lovely autumnal pool scene in Japan is the work of Tatsuo Horiuchi, using Microsoft Excel. Yes, you read that right. Excel. Why Excel? Apparently, when Mr. Horiuchi retired thirteen years ago he decided to learn one more skill. Adobe Photoshop or other such image manipulation software being too expensive, he bought a computer and started playing around with the autoshapes feature in the bundled Excel. I don't think it will surprise anyone that he won the Microsoft Excel AutoShape Challenge, his other competitors not exactly appreciating the full range of the digital palette. Since then, well, he's been using Excel to excellent effect (like I would not go there!).

In a slightly different vein, Dr. Ben Shneiderman, founding director of the HCIL (Human Computer Interaction Laboratory) as well as recent recipient of the Distinguished Professor Award here at Maryland, this summer has been generating data visualizations into what are known as treemaps. He is fascinated by the visual patterns the data generate, especially depending on the formatting of the output. A display of some of his art presently is on display in the Computer Science Instructional Center, third floor. For those really interested he will be giving a tour next Monday @ 4pm, although I think he would be quite surprised (and delighted) if art historians showed up where normally tread fearless computer scientists.

Pleasant diversions perhaps, but as well fascinating reminders of how connected is our visual experience to the world of math. Fun stuff.


The Excitement of a New School Year
Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A fresh and new academic year is underway here at the University of Maryland, just as it is in all of the area grade schools, and one still can breathe in an excitement, born of a sense of endless possibility, on the part of students, teachers and those who work particularly hard to advance the idealistic missions of schools, whether college or pre-K. The picture above, obviously an idealized trope, nonetheless captures what we all hope will be children's responses to learning - joy. For in that joy lie the elements of curiosity, of bold questioning, of daring wonder, of protean re-creation of one's self through education. Would that it were true, at least everywhere. In far too many places and in far too many schools, audacious hope is lacking. If you can bear with me, I want to suggest an idea I have, a modest one using digital tools, that, in the hands of someone(s) gifted enough to pull it off, may offer a fresh start for the kids in those schools.

Yesterday here at Maryland I attended a public event, "Pre-K to Prison Pipeline: Changing the Odds for Boys of Color," that so overflowed with attendees that one of the speakers admitted to being both "glad and sad" at the turnout. While depressing that such a subject has currency in a country so prosperous as ours, in especially sharp relief with the recent commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (there still is much work to do), it was heartening to see so many interested in and at some level committed to changing what all agree are horrible outcomes for so many kids, especially boys, who have lost that spark of hope evident in the kids and their backpacks in the picture above. Why a Pre-K to prison pipeline? Because it seems that it is in school, of all places(!), where attitudes set in and harden about what might be expected of boys of color, both on the part of the teachers and administrators and the boys themselves. One speaker, Dr. Oscar Barbarin from Tulane University, revealed that his work and that of others demonstrates that boys of color, on par in every way with boys and girls in other cohort groups up to Pre-K, begin a gap in achievement with those other groups between Pre-K and second grade that helps bake in their achievement limits down the line. Utterly depressing. Another speaker, Dr. Pedro Noguera of New York University, related anecdotes and data confirming Dr. Barbarin's work but also observed that the most successful schools he has studied push a strong counter-narrative - these schools actively develop a student's sense of agency and through that restore hope. Good, effective relationship-building is key, in which teachers are "working with the (kids) energy rather than crushing the energy."

My interest in this topic has many roots, but it was actualized at the Baltimore Think-A-Thon I attended this past May, the brain child of Dr. Sheri Parks, where I deliberately sat down at the table "Breaking the School to Prison Pipeline." There I met some amazing and creative thinkers, most all of them practitioners of Art, be it visual, music, theatre, and we engaged in a not-successful but not-pointless big think about how to tackle this problem, a problem all understand has no one solution because of its many facets and because so many factors contributed to its creation. I've tried to keep up a bit with that group so that we might not lose what momentum we generated, and it is in that spirit that now I want to share with you my modest idea for a way to try and to get this wagon out of its rut and on to a better path.

Kids need hope. Developing a sense of agency in their life is critical to their overcoming some fairly daunting circumstances courtesy of both a culture and a structure that works against them (hat tip: Dr. Noguera). How might that happen? What if kids could take power over their circumstances through fantasy, through storytelling, through art? What if some digital magic facilitated that in a big way, leading to stories shared with the larger community? What if these stories started to replace the rut-of-existence stories that have leached away the hope, the wonder, the sense of possibility?

John Shipman and I currently are developing and will be offering a different sort of course next spring exploring AR (augmented reality) and university museums, a topic of convergent interest because John is by day the director of the Art Gallery on campus and I teach and have taught on museums and its imapact on culture for the Honors College here at the University of Maryland. Why the AR bit? Well, because I think it will be a form quite pervasive in fairly short order (think Google Glass), and I think it offers museums interesting challenges and possibilities. But that is another story for another day.

It is because I have been actively thinking about AR that I think it forms the skeleton of this thought, this brain wave I had a couple of months ago, a brain wave at the start of this narrative I want to emphasize represents for me a fusion of the best work and ideas thrown out by particpants at the Think-A-Thon. I could not quite leave behind this notion I had during the Think-A-Thon of "walk a mile in my shoes" as a way of connecting stories and storytellers and storylisteners to each other and through those stories generating empathy and understanding. Very vague, I know. Here's my brain wave:

I would love to help facilitate a weekly AR comic series, "Walk a Mile in My Shoes," wherein the visual  and narrative work of a single student or group of students telling a story about their community is rendered, by them, as a geo-located AR comic book. To me, if this could take off, it could be quite powerful because it centers the work in the community, there is a point of pride (who wouldn't like to show off their "invisible/visible" creativity? "It's right here!"), active art-making within and without schools is taking place, a healthy competition might displace the unhealthy competitions that exist, at a certain point there might even be city-wide AR comic book competitions, but really the focus is on local. That's what I have. Realizable? Why not?

So, here's why I think this can work. The technology already is there.

Manifest AR, an art collective, just exhibited works like this in and around the Corcoran for a brief show. This is storytelling in the neighborhood, just one with a particularly powerful address.

So, now imagine a child (or a group of children working together!) storyboarding a comic book and creating its elements (think contoured drawings, sculptural elements, aural elements, etc), elements that then pop-up on your smartphone, tablet, whatever, as you"walk a mile in their shoes," tracing out the story. Their tale, real or imagined, now moves in space, in a blend of that-which-you-see and that which-is-invisible-until-activated. Hey, Marvel comics is already sort of getting in on the act. Why not us?

If you read this and it inspires you and you think, "hey, I can do that. I'd like to make that happen in a community," then please do it. Take this idea and run with it. Hope's waiting and so are the kids. I'll keep working the solution, too.

Have fun. Have hope. Be an AR superhero.



A compassionate vision visualized
Friday, July 19, 2013

Like many here on campus at the University of Maryland, my initial daily interface with my work computer browser is the homepage for the University of Maryland. Greeting me this morning was a banner with the cheery face of Ben and a suggestion that I support him by texting "Ben" to a number (38383), $100,000 being on the line. Okay, so I proved a bit curious, clicked and quickly found out that Ben is Ben Simon, a student at Maryland, who, along with fellow student Mia Zavalij in 2012 founded the Food Recovery Network (FRN) with three other schools. Already they are up to seven schools, across the country, and in a short year plus have recovered unused food from campus dining halls exceeding 120,000 pounds. An exciting, worthy cause, one founded by Terps and up for an award that would considerably accelerate their efforts.

What I find really cool, and deeply effective, is how they convey the information I just shared with you in the above paragraph.

Clear, huh?

You get the idea, and quickly, right?

This "About Us" visualization is a good, solid example of how good graphic design and info visualization can embed in our conscious awareness a good deal of information quite quickly. Now, what about art history.....?

Go check out their website, their story, and maybe stick around campus one evening after dinnertime to help them out.

Oh, and text "Ben" to 38383.