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

Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

RELATED: Greta Thunberg urges people to turn to nature to combat climate change

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

Millions of people in over 150 countries across the globe marched for lawmakers and corporations to take action to help stop climate change on Friday, September 20.

The Climate Strikes were organized by children around the world as an extension of the of the "Fridays for Future" campaign. Students have been walking out of classrooms on Fridays to speak out about political inaction surrounding the climate crisis.

"We need to act right now to stop burning fossil fuels and ensure a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations and climate justice at its heart," organizers say.

There's no doubt the visual images from the marches send a powerful message to those on the ground but especially those watching from around the world. GOOD's own Gabriel Reilich was on the scene for the largest of the Climate Strikes. Here are 18 of the best signs from the Climate Strike march in New York City.

Keep Reading Show less

September 20th marks the beginning of a pivotal push for the future of our planet. The Global Climate Strike will set the stage for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, where more than 60 nations are expected to build upon their commitment to 2015's Paris Agreement for combating climate change.

Millions of people are expected to take part in an estimated 4,000 events across 130 countries.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Apple

When the iPhone 11 debuted on September 10, it was met with less enthusiasm than the usual iPhone release. A lot of techies are holding off purchasing the latest gadget until Apple releases a phone with 5G technology.

Major US phone carriers have yet to build out the infrastructure necessary to provide a consistent 5G experience, so Apple didn't feel it necessary to integrate the technology into its latest iPhone.

A dramatic new feature on the iPhone 11 Pro is its three camera lenses. The three lenses give users the the original wide, plus ultrawide and telephoto options.

Keep Reading Show less
via I love butter / Flickr

We often dismiss our dreams as nonsensical dispatches from the mind while we're deep asleep. But recent research proves that our dreams can definitely affect our waking lives.

People often dream about their significant others and studies show it actually affects how we behave towads them the next day.

"A lot of people don't pay attention to their dreams and are unaware of the impact they have on their state of mind," said Dylan Selterman, psychology lecturer at the University of Maryland, says according to The Huffington Post. "Now we have evidence that there is this association."

Keep Reading Show less