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

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.


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

via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

If you are totally ready to move on from Donald Trump, you're not alone. According to a report last April from the Wason Center National Survey of 2020 Voters, "President Trump will be the least popular president to run for reelection in the history of polling."

Yes, you read that right, "history of polling."

Keep Reading Show less
via Around the NFL / Twitter

After three years on the sidelines, Colin Kapernick will be working out for multiple NFL teams on Saturday, November 16 at the Atlanta Falcons facility.

The former 49er quarterback who inflamed the culture wars by peacefully protesting against social injustice during the national anthem made the announcement on Twitter Tuesday.

Kaepernick is scheduled for a 15-minute on-field workout and an interview that will be recorded and sent to all 32 teams. The Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys, and Detroit Lions are expected to have representatives in attendance.

RELATED: Joe Namath Says Colin Kaepernick And Eric Reid Should Be Playing In The NFL

"We like our quarterback situation right now," Miami head coach, Brian Flores said. "We're going to do our due diligence."

NFL Insider Steve Wyche believes that the workout is the NFL's response to multiple teams inquiring about the 32-year-old quarterback. A league-wide workout would help to mitigate any potential political backlash that any one team may face for making an overture to the controversial figure.

Kapernick is an unrestricted free agent (UFA) so any team could have reached out to him. But it's believed that the interested teams are considering him for next season.

RELATED: Video of an Oakland train employee saving a man's life is so insane, it looks like CGI

Earlier this year, Kaepernick and Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid reached a financial settlement with the league in a joint collusion complaint. The players alleged that the league conspired to keep them out after they began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016.

Before the 2019 season, Kaepernick posted a video of himself working out on twitter to show he was in great physical condition and ready to play.

Kaepnick took the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012 and the NFC Championship game in 2013.

He has the 23rd-highest career passer rating in NFL history, the second-best interception rate, and the ninth-most rushing yards per game of any quarterback ever. In 2016, his career to a sharp dive and he won only of 11 games as a starter.


In the category of "claims to fame nobody wants," the United States can now add "exporter of white supremacist ideology" to its repertoire. Super.

Russell Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, made this claim in a briefing at The Washington Institute in Washington, D.C. "For almost two decades, the United States has pointed abroad at countries who are exporters of extreme Islamist ideology," Travers said. "We are now being seen as the exporter of white supremacist ideology. That's a reality with which we are going to have to deal."

Keep Reading Show less

Between Alexa, Siri, and Google, artificial intelligence is quickly changing us and the way we live. We no longer have to get up to turn on the lights or set the thermostat, we can find the fastest route to work with a click, and, most importantly, tag our friends in pictures. But interacting with the world isn't the only thing AI is making easier – now we can use it save the world, too.

Keep Reading Show less
Good News