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The Rise of Truth as Art

Our tweets, posts, check-ins, and shares provide today’s digital artists with highly personal source material.

When it comes to data visualization, Keats put it best: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Sure, he wrote that line 200 years ago in Ode on a Grecian Urn, but the sentiment captures an essential reality that computer scientists understand: There’s beauty in truth. In data.


Data are what we’re supplying in megadoses every day through social media—billions of traces of our real-life movement documented in the digital space. Every tweet, post, check-in and share, each one geotagged to our location, is like a stamped postcard of our travels through daily life that we mail from the real world to the digital one.

The latest craze in digital art: making data beautiful, enlightening—even sublime.

Now computer scientists are mapping founts of data generated by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr in data visualizations that reveal fascinating patterns of human action and interaction—especially in cities, where more than half of the world lives.

Let’s look at some of our data—really, our lives—as these pioneers have visualized it. Instagram cities, a joint project between the department of History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, the Software Studies Initiative at the the California Institute for Telecommunication and Information, and The Graduate Center, City University of New York, visualizes more than 2.3 million publicly shared Instagram photos from major cities around the world to reveal the visual rhythm or signature of each one.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Every tweet, post, check-in, and share is like a stamped postcard of our travels through daily life that we mail from the real world to the digital one. [/quote]

Take Bangkok’s color wheel, where more than 50,000 images are organized on a sprawling color wheel organized by brightness mean (radius) and hue median (perimeter). Or the dataviz of Tel Aviv’s 289 most active Instagrammers, whose photos taken during a three-month period now live in a matrix of spiky, color-coded plots depicting where and when they posted—morning, afternoon or night.

Or zoom in on the Chuck Close–esque visualization of 53,498 images posted in Tokyo during one week in February 2012 and you’ll see a preponderance of ovals. What are they? Plates of food.

Bangkok's Color Wheel, via Phototrails.net

Another visual artist documented where people eat, drink and shop in Berlin based on Yelp and Foursquare data. Where do people watch the sunset in Venice? Based on geotagged Flickr images, Luminous Cities knows: the Lido de Venezia. And in Hong Kong, one of the world’s megacities, streams of orange dots snaking away from the dense photo clusters at the harbor are evidence of a quieter side of the city: hiking trails in the hills. A common tag on these images, shared with the world, is “alone.”

It’s not surprising that one of the biggest generators of geotagged data is creating its own visualizations. Twitter’s geography of tweets features lovely images of networks in Istanbul, Tokyo and New York City in 2013, among other cities. Its everyday moments conveys the prosaic side of life in all sorts of categories. One UK map charts where and when hungry Brits tweet about burgers, pizza or chips. Also not surprisingly, Twitter puts together these visualizations to make it easier for marketers to target their burger, pizza and chip campaigns.

Data visualizers have mapped revolutions in Cairo and Kiev, protests in Istanbul and violence in Syria. When the power went out in some parts of Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy swept through, the Instagram photos plunged into darkness.

Tweets even reveal whether people are tweeting from Androids, Blackberries or iPhones. Combine that information with geotagging, and a clear pattern emerges: iPhone use is higher in wealthy areas, and Android use in poorer areas.

Paris, via Flickr user Eric Fisher

Data visualizations can be both enlightening and beautiful. In fact, making data sublime is on the cutting edge of digital art. Digital art isn’t new—it’s paralleled the development of new technology, especially since the 1960s—but what is new is the accessibility and immediacy of the source material digital artists—or, as some are calling themselves, data artists—have to work with.

One example is Eric Fischer, whose digital mapping of 124 cities geotagged in photos on Flickr and Picasa revealed where “Locals and Tourists,” as the project is known, photographed their surroundings. The project was featured in MoMA’s 2010 exhibit “Talk to Me.” Another is Moritz Stefaner, who not only told us where people are eating, drinking and shopping in Berlin, but created a map plotting the shared tags among five cities. Happy, me, love, girl and good land in the shared center.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Digital art isn’t new, but here’s what is: The immediacy of the source material digital artists—or, as some are calling themselves, data artists—have to work with. [/quote]

A third is Jer Thorp, who gained notoriety in the data visualization world with Good Morning, his 3D rendering of the greeting as it appeared in 11,000 tweets in English and other languages over a 24-hour period. Each tweet rising from the globe is like someone waking, standing, stretching and greeting the day. Since then Thorp has worked with NASA to visualize data about thousands of exoplanets, was the data artist in residence at the New York Times’ R&D lab and founded the Office of Creative Research, a multidisciplinary research group that taps both the arts and the sciences to find new ways to engage with data.

The people behind Instagram Cities have also created Selfiecity, which documents the art and science of the selfie in five cities around the world, and On Broadway, an interactive exhibit of NYC life digitally traced through 660,000 Instagram photos, 8 million Foursquare check-ins and 22 million taxi pickups and dropoffs. The project is currently featured in the New York Public Library show “Public Eye: 175 Years of Photography.” Our obsession with sharing images was apparently born when the camera was.

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Other digital art exhibits have been held in recent years at museums in Barcelona and Singapore. In the end, what joins these data-disparate digital art projects together is that they all aim to locate people squarely in their lived environments—not in a digital proxy.

The MIT Media Lab initiative You Are Here underscores that point perfectly. Members of the lab’s Social Computing Group are creating 100 maps of 100 cities where the digital cartographers have actually lived.These aren’t just informative (and lovely) maps detailing school locations in Detroit, street greenery in Cambridge and bike sharing efficiency in London. They’re emotional landscapes.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We hope that by mapping the little things that make up our lives, we'll empower people to make their city a more beautiful place.[/quote]

And isn’t that what we’re doing with every tweet, post, check-in, and share—creating our own personal emotional landscape? You Are Here puts it best. “Each of these maps will be an aggregation of thousands of microstories, tracing the narratives of our collective experience,” reads the project description. “We will make maps of the little things that make up life—from the trees we hug, to the places where we crashed our bikes, to the benches where we fell in love.

“We hope that by showing these stories, we empower people to make their city—and therefore their world—a more beautiful place.”

Illustrations by Brian Hurst

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