Tuesday March 2, 2010


I suspect that for this first week I will post every single day because we will be doing a new exercise every day. Rest assured that I wont be posting quite so often in later weeks. On with the show.

So today through a practical exercise we learnt about the connections that make up a social network and how to visualise them in a meaningful way. But what we learnt can be applied to any kind of network and I imagine can have far reaching implications to successful design and solving of large problems. But more on that later.

In 4 groups of roughly 15 (our group had 12 members) we were given coloured post-it notes. On a set of pink notes, we wrote our names and stuck them to a wall, with physical clearance given around each name. On yellow post it notes, we wrote an answer to a simple question such as our favourite coffee, preferred operating system, most likely pet, what time we woke up this morning, and so on. These notes were then stuck around our name with yellow wool connecting each answer back to our name.


Like so. Then we threaded different wool through common answers, so for everyone that answered for example "Trim Mocha" for their favourite type of coffee, wool would connect those common answers. Except nobody answered Trim Mocha. Except me. Moving on...

The result looked something like this:


 Similar groups of answers were called classes. When I first heard this I thought "aahhh, this is a way of teaching us the concepts of object-oriented programming" as later on we will be introduced to Java. But, it wasn't at all, so ignore that.

We numbered each line of coloured wool that connected the answers, and numbered each person. For each class we noted down the number of answers in that class (the frequency) and the number of each person in that class (the membership).

Playtime over using this information we were able to enter the raw data into a program called Gephi. Gephi is a program for visualising data and allows people to see underlying structures to networks, in this case a social network.


This is the result. Mark Zuckerberg would be pleased, it clearly demonstrates that facebook is the hub of social networking. At least in our case. Then again it also says more people dislike coffee than like coffee. It also says I prefer macs which I object to, I have no OS preference. They both can do equally stupid things.

We also watched a BBC documentary called Connected: The Power of Six Degrees, that explains the science of networks, in particular social networks. However, the principals can be applied to any kind of network, such as traffic congestion, biological networks in the body, computer networks and the internet. One interesting example in the video is the mapping of human diseases to each other by the genes they have in common. This helps researchers find other genes diseases may have that they have not yet discovered. I can imagine that it could also help researchers identify certain weaknesses in the human body a bit better. But this is probably taking off to a tangent from  the main lesson today, which is how we're all connected in various ways, but more connected in some ways than others, and those larger connections are called hubs. Hubs are the best place to start if you want spread a virus or a nasty rumour or what not... Not that I recommend either course of action.

I took some video footage of the day but I've run out of time and it wasn't that great anyway. There is something wrong with my battery, it went flat way too fast so the camera was consequently tied to the wall most of the session. Oh and the time lapse function is terrible it turns out. Better to just shoot and select frames in post production... There must be an easy way to do that surely!

    Saturday March 6, 2010

Data Visualisation

First week but it's been quite full-on, possibly because I put just a little bit too much effort for the allotted time, I should probably be more realistic, but I've always been one to chase a vision with out regard to what it will take to produce. I might need to learn to be more pragmatic.

So building upon the lessons of Network Science/Social Networking, on Wednesday we reflected on the various presentations of Tuesday's data using Gephi, determining whose works were the most successful at conveying the information and why. The use of colour, size and position along with general placement of text for readability varied between different people's presentations so we could all see clearly what worked and what didn't and learn from it.

We were then introduced to some other examples of visual display of data, and a pioneer in this field, Edward Tufte, along with a short video of his critique of the iphone interface. This caught my interest in particular, as interface design is something I find mildly interesting, often commenting on various elements of Windows and OSX interfaces, and gadgets and mobile phones. I'm pretty sure somewhere in my portfolio that got me into the course to start with I commented on the iphone interface. It was a type of interface I'd been sort of waiting for, finding normal mobile phones incredibly clunky to use. To me the bad design really shows it self when  you are in a rush, and cell phones are one piece of equipment you are likely to use when in a rush or a panic. Getting lost in their screens and menus because is incredibly poor design in my opinion.

You have to watch the video in the link to know what I'm talking about in this paragraph. I tended to agree a little with the sentiments of his critique on the stock exchange application, although his version was a little ugly. I imagine that if you follow the stock exchange on a daily basis, the crammed information on Tufte's design would not be an issue. It looks daunting to those (including me) who have no idea what that information is conveying. But his theme (or lack of, it almost looked like HTML without the CSS*) certainly does not fit into Apple's.

Our task after this was to get into groups of 3 and observe and record data of some sort so that we could then visualise it. But there were restrictions to this project, mainly that the visualisation should be non-representational and must not contain words which at the time of doing, the concept was a bit lost on me. That's one reason this blog entry was not made on the day we did this project. My aim for this blog is to explain in layman's terms what I've learnt or done on this course because being able to do so to me means you understand it. I didn't quite "get" it. It seemed very abstract. To present data without actually using the subject matter, with no words, how on earth is one to know what meaning a visualisation carries? One either had to be highly creative or have more in depth understanding of data visualisation using abstract methods. Particularly considering what we chose to record as data. We sat in the foyer for an hour and counted people walking past for an hour in blocks of 10 minutes. For added interest we counted people wearing mostly black separately from those wearing colours. Interestingly by the way, colour appears to be the new black.

A time-consuming challenge was that I decided to do the presentation in Flash. I've used Flash before - several times - and produced work from it. The trouble is, I use it so infrequently that it's almost like I have to re-learn it every time. I find it's interface a bit clunky (and too macromedia-ish - the previous developers before Adobe bought them out) and while I get the basic concepts I find it really hard to actually execute the steps in those concepts. Plus not knowing keyboard shortcuts the way I know InDesign/Illustrator/Photoshop short keys really painful. Yet this didn't deter me and I produced an animation I was mildly happy with on behalf of our group. I then went straight to bed at 12:30am...


Yes I put a title in there.... Anyway it the clock turned and the walking men fluctuated in size over the duration. And yes, the walking was animated. Once I figure out how to host a swf on this blog I'll edit this post.

*HTML (HyperText Markup Language) is what web pages are essentially made of, and what web browsers read. A number of years ago in the evolution of the web, a distinct separation was made between HTML, which is the content and CSS which is the presentation and design. CSS stands for cascading style sheets.  Well designed websites make a clear distinction between content and design. Advantages of such a method include easy repurposing of content for other devices such as mobile phones and TV sets, accessibility such as for blind people and also easy design change without a single change to the content. Visit https://www.csszengarden.com/  for a dramatic demonstration.

    Sunday March 7, 2010

Situational Shuffle

On Thursday morning we presented our visualisations, and I was rather impressed with a couple of them, it was as if someone had upped the ante since our last presentation and people had risen to the challenge. Our team did not however present which annoyed me after all the work I put in, but the problem was that at the moment I'm a bit short on certain tools, in this case a USB stick (a couple of weeks ago I had 2 of them!) so I copied the swf (the file Flash creates) to my mobile phone. Contrary to the idea that macs "just work", the macs at BCT did not recognise my phone and I guess it would be wildly uncool to pop up and say "I need a driver" like Windows might, so macs just do.... nothing. Oh by the way, I usually abuse Windows far more than I abuse OSX, but OSX is not perfect. And with Windows 7, there are actually some UI elements that make OSX look a bit... clunky to use. Strange but true. Anyway, it didn't occur to me to burn it to CD, I have a stack of them around here.

Thursday's lesson we were to get into groups of 4 and follow instructions on a set of cards that had been shuffled in random order. Each member of the group had a role, one was to carry out the task (The Actuator). One was to read the task and direct the Actuator (The Controller). One was to chart the progress of the Actuator on a map (The Tracker). And one was to sit outside of the group and observe and record it using whatever methods available (The Sensor). Our group had 3 people so The Controller and the Actuator became the same person. I was the Sensor. The instructions included "walk to nearest traffic lights", "Follow a man with a tattoo for 2 minutes", "Take something free" as well as instructions like "Turn 90 degrees left". So all groups wound up taking different paths through the city and had it recorded in video, pictures and drawings.

The next part was to find a way to present our excursion leveraging the abilities of individual members of the group. I floated the idea that we make a video using all our material and perhaps animation for the map and narrate it. This was met with scepticism by the group as it would not be interactive, so we moved onto Flash. Trouble is none of are expert enough with Flash to guarantee that we wouldn't be there until midnight and quite frankly this did not appeal as I'd already done as much the previous 2 nights and I was starting to get tired. So we moved on to PowerPoint which I cannot personally use (and being a bit of a snob to MS Office for various reasons I won't bore you with, never really had the desire to learn), so I relinquished control of the lab iMac and got lunch. While eating lunch, two things occurred to me:

1, We had ditched Adobe Premiere video-making because it wasn't interactive in favour of PowerPoint... which is also not interactive - and pretty rubbish by comparison.

2, If were were going to do a Slideshow with video elements, why not do it in InDesign and export as pdf, which will mimic a PowerPoint slideshow quite well - one could even have naff transitions if you are that way inclined. Over all it could look 10 times better and well designed and of course, one of our members was experienced with the application so we could do the job faster. Er, that person is me. I got back and mentioned this. Soon the group was quite dissatisfied with the current progress, so we decided to boot it for the InDesign method.

The result was finished at about 6:30, although I took it home and tweaked a few small things about it. We presented it on Friday morning, and a few of the other presentations were very impressive. Including one in PowerPoint that looked like a proper slide presentation (rather than like all the terrible ones that you get in emails that that one guy in the office forwards you all the time, made by other bored office workers. You know the ones, mundane subject turned into a ppt file. Comic-sans font, awful and slow transitions and a degree of pointlessness because it would have been more effective as just a normal email with pictures and text attached). Unfortunately despite all videos being encoded in some standard codec inside .mov (quicktime) format, it working on this windows machine (that doesn't even have quicktime installed), and working on the lab macs, the mac used for the presentation threw up errors when I tried to play a video. Ugh! The show went on without the video component, and our team realised that perhaps although we had little time, we should have budgeted in some practice so we knew who was saying what rather than look at each other as if to say "No you speak". But it was an okay first presentation, not by any means a shambles. But roll on the leased laptops, something that will take some of the unpredictability out of our future presentations.

The rest of the day was fairly relaxed, a BBQ with all years and the first of the laptops arrived for student's who had paid the bond. I haven't yet but will be um... soon.

So that was the first week, fun although tiring. This weekend hasn't been one of total relaxation though, I've mulled over the week's lessons so I could blog about them, done some self-directed learning on Edward Tufte and prepared for tomorrow by nosing around the online resources for tomorrow's class that have already been put up. Plus preparation for moving soon to a more appropriate living situation (ie one that doesn't cost the kind of money that I no longer earn) and trading past life items for cash on trademe in the process. Exciting!

Next week's known challenges: more design work on this blog and trying to be more succinct in posts.

Oh and working out why comments are not currently working. It will be fixed... - Edit: It IS fixed!!