Data artist in residence: Why your data needs an artist's touch

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A growing number of companies are looking at new ways to display their data and turning to the art world for assistance.

As more companies hire data scientists, there is a corresponding trend to hire a new kind of employee that some refer to as "data artists," whose job it is to tell the stories behind the data in the most accessible and revealing ways. And these folks are taking major roles on product management teams.

Some of the bigger tech companies such as Microsoft and Google are bringing in the data artists from museums and galleries and putting them to work with developing new visualizations that can help explain their message, promote company awareness, and help out with the marketing efforts.

For example, Aaron Koblin, who leads the Data Arts Team in Google's Creative Lab, gave this TED talk on his data art projects:

Jim Sterne from Anametrix (a big data visualization tools vendor) has posted on their site a good working definition for the new role: "A data artist uses data streams and advanced analytics systems in the same way a regular artist uses oil and brushes, stone and chisels or wood and carving knifes. A data artist must be a master of all digital media -- ad networks, email campaigns, YouTube channel measurement and more -- to create valid insights worthy of using as foundations for business decisions." That is a great start.

Painting by numbers

Fine art and data visualizations aren't a new combo by any means. Sheldon Brown's video installation Scalable City was shown in 2008 at San Francisco's Exploratorium. There are numerous graphic artists that have been working with computer code and modeling data for years such as Jon Phillips and Golan Levin. Many have exhibited at other museums and galleries around the world.

And some data visualizations are very artsy, unintentionally or coincidentally. Hans Rosling has been wowing TED audiences for years with his animated bubble charts of world economic development. (Yes, that sounds odd but they are really quite beautiful.) And look at these Lego constructions illustrating immigrant migrations, or this very useful graphical display of the world clock, showing overlapping office hours among three cities from Dark Horse Analytics.

Microsoft has even spent some time fixing up their user experience and product design according to the artistic ethos of the Bauhaus modern art movement from the last century. Steve Clayton, Microsoft's Chief Storyteller, describes in one of their blogs: "The Bauhaus movement had one of its focus on making the function beautiful. At the heart of the Bauhaus philosophy is stripping away superfluous decorations to focus on the essence of the functional.

It is certainly a growing field. The New York DataViz meetup has grown to more than 1800 members, and there are similar groups in cities around the world too.

Artist at work

Perhaps the pre-eminent data artist is Jer Thorp. He has done a TED talk (video below) that shows off some of his work for the New York Times, Wired magazine and other organizations. I met him at a talk that he gave at a public event last month that was sponsored by the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission, an umbrella arts funding and advocacy organization and gallery and meeting space.

Much of Thorp's work has been analyzing Tweets, including as part of a team at the New York Times called project Cascade. It was created a few years ago to help visualize the lifecycle of a news article and how it was shared across social media. On their website, you can see sample time-series visualizations about significant news stories, such as Chelsea Clinton's wedding or when that errant flight attendant used the evacuation slide. The idea is to help the Times staff and others figure out influential social posters – what they call "Tweeter Zero" -- and how to find these people on particular subjects. Thorpe told his St. Louis audience that "Twitter is the fruit fly of social network research, because it is easy to use and observe patterns."

Thorp says that "data is bleeding into our popular culture," and data artists are best used to help make that transition. For example, he created an art installation at the New York Public Theater, home of the outdoor summer Shakespeare festival offices. The work is a collection of several dozen LCD displays that continuously scroll various lines from the Bard's plays. The ancient language literally comes to life across the various screens.

Thorp continues to work on new and innovative projects and is spending the next year working as data artist in residence for the Center of Creative Arts, which offers a series of multidisciplinary and multicultural arts programs for the St. Louis community. Kelly Pollock is their Executive Director and heard about some of Thorp's projects. She applied for a grant from the Regional Arts Commission to fund his residency and she spoke to me about what they are trying to accomplish. "Data and the arts are not a very comfortable combination; it is like putting on a very itchy sweater. There has always been this tension on how we tell our own story or communicate our impact. Thorp's angle was so interesting, especially in the human narrative. We have amazing success stories and want to have him address how we can use our data and tell our stories to the community in a more meaningful way." For example, Thorp could develop a dance, sculpture, or some other performance or presentation as part of his residency.

So how should businesses work with artists to better visualize their data? Here are some suggestions.

  • First, as Thorp suggests, "bring an artist to work on your data as soon as you can." Set up something creative: it doesn't have to be a web page but can take the form of something in your lobby, like the Public Theater's Shakespeare device. (Google has something similar in some of their offices.) Thorp talks about how data visualizations have two broad purposes: for data reduction, which are summary graphics that are suitable for annual reports; and for data revelation, which show something that has never been seen before. You need both types to have great art.

  • Thorp constantly reminds his clients not to confuse data with the actual real-world conditions. Don't get mired in the nitty-gritty details, or get stuck in the data mining process. And don't get caught up in producing a meaningless pretty picture either. Find the middle ground, where the art can stand on its own but still provide some interesting insights. A data artist "should share opinions and hold back the numbers for reference, if needed," says Sterne.

  • Avoid "Death By PowerPoint" presentations. This is something that we all can get behind. Data artists can help improve the overall presentations of data, and there has been an "extreme presentation movement" for years to try to get others to learn how to do it. Here are ten suggestions on how your can improve your slide decks by Dr. Andrew Abela, who is Dean of the School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

  • Focus on telling stories and helping how others in the business can achieve their goals. Tie your insights into the corporate bottom line where it makes sense, and don't just think about producing a report but instead create an object of interest and wonder, advises Thorp. Who knows: your next data art might make it into a museum collection after all.

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