Data, Privacy and Politics

Open City Documentary Festival ran last week, and I attended their excellent panel event A Smart Portrait of London, knowing that visualisations from CASA staff and students (including some lovely work by our MRes students) featured at the end of the evening, but somehow having forgotten that filmmaker Kevin Biderman had interviewed me for his excellent interactive film piece, Data Futures†. I contributed to the discussion led by the panel, talking about how brilliant it will be when Google run our lives*, it only gradually dawning on me that following the group’s rather on-point critique of the challenges around the ethics of big data, a huge image of my face was going to appear talking about how cool datavis is; a rather less critical perspective. I think Kevin has done me a real service in making me look like an enthusiast for the potential of data and visualisation rather than a technocratic cheerleader; but it’ll certainly be worth watching the full piece when it is completed and how my upbeat message is tempered by more cautious commentators. Either way, you can see it above.

If you’d like to hear more about data, privacy and politics, I’m chairing a session of the same name at the Practising Ethics in Built Environment Research conference on Tuesday, featuring Emma Uprichard (an interdisciplinary social scientist based in Warwick), Nathan Lea or the Institute of Health Informatics at UCL, and Jack Stilgoe (from UCL’s Science and Technology Studies department) – or if you’re more interested in the technical/practical side of data visualisation, you might want to consider our new MRes course, which is open for applications until the end of July.

† the full piece is not yet available, but I will link to it here or via my twitter account @sociablephysics when it is
*that’s slightly lacking nuance; it was more a comment about how, to me, “the public” still seem generally happy to trade their data for services, even following the Snowdon GCHQ/NSA revelations

MRes Visualisation Projects 2014-2015

Screenshot 2015-06-17 17.37.24

The data visualisation projects this year were, as ever, excellent. The theme was “a day in the life”, and the groups took that in different directions – I’ll focus on just one of those projects, a group who decided to explore the data behind the London Marathon to draw out its story.

Heidi, Kaisa, Yuefeng (“Jeff”) and Aditya wanted to understand the marathon from a data-driven perspective – both as an athletic event, and as one which has impact across the world. They set about gathering data from the Marathon site about runners, and in parallel, mining Twitter for buzz running up to the event by searching on marathon-related hashtags across the world. The also gathered data on race day in London in order to see live tweets as they happened over the course of the race.

These were the datasets, and from this the team was able to generate a diverse but coherent set of visualisations: maps of tweets around the world, visualisations of international runners travelling to the UK, and visualisations of the race itself drawn from real running data. The 2D version of this incorporates weather and curated tweets of encouragement; the 3D version has a detailed 3D model of London and a high-resolution basemap.

The group then synthesised these elements into the coherent and concise video you see above. Choosing a consistent colour palette and base map glue the individual pieces together; the use of a voice over draws to viewer in and ties the elements together further.

In the course of this project, the students used elements from all aspects of their visualisation course – 3D environments, data collection, and programmatic visualisation – but it’s what the elements have in common that makes for an effective project.

This post originally appeared at in June 2015.

A particular flavour of social physics


This review of Alex Pentland’s Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – the Lessons from a New Science was published in the December 2014 issue of Physics World –  which can be accessed here if you sign up for free!

Alex “Sandy” Pentland is a computer scientist with an impressive academic record and an even more impressive history of translating academic outputs into business and consultancy. To say he has entrepreneurial flair would seem to be an understatement; his previous book was a bestseller, and his career is sprinkled liberally with consultancies and spin-outs from his research group. His career defies easy categorization, but he calls the work that he does on network analysis and computational social science “social physics”. In his latest book, Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – the Lessons from a New Science he outlines his vision of a discipline that has a history of infighting and intellectual land-grabbing.

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Persecuted by a number

67“My problem is that I’ve been persecuted by an integer”

With this, George Miller, like a Franz Kafka of cognitive psychology, launched one of the most influential papers in the field. Miller’s persecutor was the number seven – which, in test after test of absolute judgement, appeared as approximately the number of categories people could tell apart.

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Even more fishing about architecture

GPS bike tracks visualisation in Madrid (work in progress) - Martin Zaltz Austwick and Gustavo Romanillous

GPS bike tracks visualisation in Madrid (work in progress) – Martin Zaltz Austwick and Gustavo Romanillos (c) 2014

I’ve written in the past (and here) about how difficult I’ve found it to get my hands on a book about visualisation that’s a real page turner – this must be a problem that greater minds than I have struggled with for at least a century or two, but I find the writing about design I see curiously unsatisfying. Like travel writing, I’d rather be doing the thing than reading about it. Which is as fine a way as any to learn, but a bit solipsistic.

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Mapping Research on Urban Sustainability

Critique of Knowledge Production etched into sustainable bamboo

Critique of Knowledge Production etched into sustainable bamboo

In this guest post by anthropologist Charlotte Johnson, she discusses her perspectives on the PICKs project (published earlier this month in Sustainability: The Journal of Record and available open source).

When asked to ‘map all the research related to cities and resources at UCL’ my first thought was ‘eek’, and not just due to the overwhelming size of the task (UCL has a research body of over 4000 people). But from a critical perspective mapping can be an act of epistemic violence – what gets put on the map and why, who gets to decide on the parameters? For me, a map is an object fraught with imperial overtones not to mention the hubris in attempting to comprehensively represent an ever-shifting landscape.

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Active City: MRes Visualisation Projects 2013-2014

The MRes group visualisation projects are complete, and as predicted, rather impressive. This year the theme was “The Active City”, and students took this and ran with it in a variety of ways, whether viewing the activity of mobility-impaired users of the London Underground network, exploring the Thames as a driver of development and cultural activity, or looking at the cultural life of the city through museums and blue plaques.

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