Takeaways from Eyeo 2016 ❤️

The 6th edition of the Eyeo Festival, which brings together “explorers” of art, interaction, and information for four days of limitless sharing, concluded the same way it started: with the organizer Dave and his adorable daughter setting the scene for a free-spirited conversation among friends.


Below is some of what I took away from the many sessions — thoughts, feelings & resources. Happy for any comments and/or corrections!

Caveat: The Conference is “2-track” — and in addition I overslept one morning 😴 — so this post covers only a fraction of the Eyeo greatness this year!

Code + Activism Summit

As a pre-conference event, participants were invited to take part in an unconference on Code and Activism, held at the Intermedia Arts Center.
The agenda (pictured above), that we collaboratively came up with at the beginning of the day, featured topics such as:

  • “Integrity in Data Presentation”
  • “History Lessons (#BlackLivesMatter circa 1912)”
  • “Political Campaign Tools”
  • “Ask A Trans Person”
  • and more …

More Questions Than Answers

For me, the conversations generated many new questions — among them:

  • Is there a Video Storytelling Toolkit for Data Journalists?
     (Otherwise, anyone up for collaborating around one? Email me!)
    This question arose from the conversation on “The End of Code”, which started out as a bit of a provocative appeal to more often opt for using video instead of a code-based, interactive approach for educational pieces … Or with immense dedication and skill, one could obviously combine the two as in the example of “Fallen”: www.fallen.io/ww2/.
  • What prerequisites are necessary for “the Electorate” (a somewhat problematic generalization) to be open to consider new facts and data in their decision-making?
    In this conversation, participants shared both specific theories and pointed towards more fundamental issues. In the case of the former, for example how we tend to be more open to new facts if they are relayed by a friend, and in case of the latter, that we need to believe in the underlying electoral system to be in this “state of (open) mind”. I hope to be able to dig into these theories properly over the next months, as it is always a good reminder for us Data Storytellers that emotion is often the more valuable currency of $EMO and $DATA …


See also Jeff Gray’s link collection from the conversation on “inner-city surveillance”: https://medium.com/@grayfuse/eyeo-2016-code-activism-f89b18ded7ac#.ws6stz5x6

… and why not watch a repository on Digital Tools for Activism?

… and if you have a relevant one, do add your project to this collaborative spreadsheet on the Social Impact of Open Data!

Ignite Talks!

The first night of the conference featured 10 “Ignite talks” (= speakers have five minutes to talk on a subject accompanied by 20 automatically advancing slides). Two of my favorite talks were:

Image from http://www.questionbox.org/overview/

Question Box

Question Box is a programmable call box. What I really like about this idea is its versatility. A box can be configured to support for example:

  • Rural Ambulance Dispatch
  • Rural Ebola Emergency Community Support
  • Antenatal Care And HIV Testing For At-Risk Women
“These public callboxes allow community members to go for help and to provide feedback, near their homes and place of business.”

“Visualizing ATM Trash”

Sands Fish gave us a very entertaining talk on what can be uncovered by tabulating the numbers on receipts in ATM trash cans! 
Are you easily disgusted? Don’t try this at your studio!

All the 2016 talks will be available on the Eyeofestival Vimeo Channel — meanwhile check out some videos from previous years!

On Poetry And Data Visualization

“How can poetry be used as a design approach?”
(… and not just as a subject for visual representation)
Design Brief

This, the topic of Paolo Ciuccarelli (@ Politecnico di Milano), immediately got me hooked. (Disclosure: Poetry Slam changed my life when I was a teenager.❤️ )

Paolo is giving his students a design brief that encompasses “poiesis”, and in so encourages a “play with rhetorics and emotion”. The results of these projects — for example a poster on Ebola and a video data visualization on the spread of HIV — showed without doubt that this approach can produce very compelling (and in such probably efficient) data visualizations. Overall Paolo seems to be a kind of “impresario” (in Sara Hendren’s words) — a great multiplier — in this world of design & data :)

Speaking of Poetic Data Visualization, I want to highlight the work “Keeping Time” by Tega Brain (from another session at Eyeo):

Keeping Time (source: http://tegabrain.com/Keeping-Time)
“The work shows patterns of species visibility. [Using the Flickr database] Observing the number of photos taken throughout each year, we see that plants only become visible to us at particular moments in their life cycles — typically when a species flowers, but also when leaves turn red during fall and bud in spring. As such this project provides glimpses of widely held socio-cultural relationships to the species in question, showing some to have cultural significance as people’s names, names of places or use in events like festivals or weddings.” (http://tegabrain.com/Keeping-Time)

Machine Learning For Artists

Gene Kogan’s talk — something of a 101 on Neural Networks — was inspiring in so many ways. (“Deep Convolutional Generative Adversarial Networks” is no longer just a mouthful …!
Using live “OpenFrameworks demos”, Gene visualized the algorithms behind “Style Transfer” and other interesting Neural Network applications.

“Style Transfer”, http://www.genekogan.com/works/style-transfer.html

When showing his work on Applying Style Transfer to Video, frame by frame, the audience broke into spontaneous applause …

Gene is making amazing, in-depth course material available here: http://ml4a.github.io/classes/itp-S16/

ps. On the topic of art and machine learning, don’t miss this just recently released TEDTalk on Google’s Cultural Institute and Art Project.

Policy And Machine Learning

… and with increasingly powerful Machine Learning applications, it is becoming ever more urgent to scrutinize what we teach the machines …

“Who is not represented in the training data?”

Kyle McDonald (media artist) highlighted two glaring examples of unacceptable “machine smartness” outcomes:

The overall risk is obviously that historical and current societal failures (read: racism etc. etc.) get exponentially exacerbated when machines are fed this normative dataset …

In one of the “Attendee Show and Tell sessions”, David Robinson (Upturn) described one collaborative remedy to the above risks and somewhat beyond; the “Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data”.

From civilrights.org:

“At the same time, as new technologies allow companies and government to gain greater insight into our lives, it is vitally important that these technologies be designed and used in ways that respect the values of equal opportunity and equal justice. We aim to:
Stop High-Tech Profiling
Ensure Fairness in Automated Decisions
Preserve Constitutional Principles
Enhance Individual Control of Personal Information
Protect People from Inaccurate Data”

Parafunctionality And Humane Tech

Apart from her genius work on “Keeping Time”, Tega Brain (artist & researcher) also showed experiments in “Parafunctionality”, in part aimed at making us aware of what factors we optimize for in our designs.

“Eccentric engineering deliberately attempts to relinquish some control in the systems we build, to create open opportunities for other agendas and outcomes.”

I especially enjoyed the presentation of “Unfit Bits” (http://tegabrain.com/Unfit-Bits) which is a critique of insurance companies’ increasing access to, and interest in, personal data. (For example by offering rewards for a “high exercise lifestyle”.)

Jesse Kriss spoke on a related topic — “Humane Tech”. He has provided a transcript of the talk, in which argued that the DIY culture could come to the rescue, over here: https://medium.com/@jkriss/human-scale-technology-75da763eb03#.u7e7hwaol

“We can’t just try to be better, or aim to be more empathetic in our designs. We need new conditions and goals to create different outcomes. That’s how systems work.”
Example of “inhumane tech”: Punchcard used by the Nazis for the 1933 census. Image from: https://medium.com/@jkriss/human-scale-technology-75da763eb03#.u7e7hwaol

Can Culture Be Simulated?

Both Michael Chang and Lynn Cherny demonstrated entertaining and sophisticated, generative examples of culture simulation — from cities to peoples to poetry. Most of these examples seemed to be based on clever recombination of words or, in the case of buildings, features. (I’d be curious to know what other approaches there are to simulating culture? Is there a way to mimic what I’d call “cultural founder effects” and other “anthropologic leaps”?)

Source: http://mflux.tumblr.com/

“Procedural Cities”

Michael Chang built amazing cities and cultures using different types of generators, visual- and text-based.

“I’ve switched the entire implementation to using Unreal.js which means yes … THREE.js is running inside Unreal Engine. It’s exciting and potentially a loss of sanity.”

“Procedural Drink Mixes”

Lynn Cherny’s Drink Book is something I would order immediately, should it be available on the “cloud vomit” version of Amazon.

I mean … “a Dash of Angostura Rotavirus” …

Afrofuturism and #BlackLivesMatter

Artists and researchers Salome Asega and Ayodamola Okunseinde have come together to take on the grand challenge of being “custodians for a museum that exists in the future” — the Iyapo Repository.

Ayodamola Okunseinde and Salome Asega
“The Iyapo Repository is a future resource library that will house a collection of digital and physical artifacts created to affirm and project the African diaspora. It offers opportunities for African descendants to generate and build technological cultural artifacts of their future. The project is situated between physical and digital spaces, between the present and the future. It asks us to reimagine notions of race, identity & culture through technological artifacts as they travel through time & space.”
Anil Dash, https://twitter.com/anildash

Lack of representation was also a theme in Anil Dash’s suggestive 1-hour Keynote (set at the beautiful Nicollet Island Pavilion) that paid homage to Prince (June 7 in Minneapolis) and to the minority groups’ thankless labor that, time and time again, have been instrumental in rolling out the “Vast networks of infrastructure” that power other’s American Dreams — the railroad, the highways and more …

Anil reminded us not only of the thanklessness, but also of the immediate suffering. “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was one example he mentioned — a chilling artifact …

“The Negro Motorist Green Book was an annual guidebook for African-American roadtrippers. It was originated and published by New York City mailman Victor H. Green in the United States from 1936 to 1966, during the Jim Crow era, when open and often legally prescribed discrimination against non-whites was widespread.” (Wikipedia)

As a striking contrast, Anil then commented on the fact that Adobe, Google and Microsoft now all have Indian-born CEOs. (… would be interesting to read an intersectional analysis around this … anyone?)

Mapping Power And Influence

Kevin Connor, Director of the Public Accountability Initiative & co-founder of LittleSis.org (“a free database of who-knows-who at the heights of business and government”), showed, among other things, opportunities and limitations with their interactive mapping tool Oligrapher (which can also be used standalone from the LittleSis database!).

Two examples in his presentation came across to me as particularly useful/thought-provoking:

1) The annotations feature was really well executed, allowing creators to easily add a series of stepwise highlights to a network map.

2) When Kevin did a live demo of the connections around the very building we were in — the Walker Art Center — it demonstrated how powerful this tool can be for rapid discovery and hypothesis generation.

Screenshot from LittleSis.org
“In an era marked by unprecedented concentrations of wealth and power, the need for this research is especially clear.”

The wonderful Nicky Case gave us a sneak preview of an upcoming project for “Frontline” (PBS). I am looking forward to browse this story that looked at modeling how social interactions can contribute to or protect from “emergent properties of evil” / escalating extremism.

Also Marek Tuszynski’s session “Patterns and Shadows of Life: The View From the White Room” portrayed investigations of power and influence.

“The ‘White Room’ is a live installation by the Tactical Technology Collective — an inversion of a major company; a sales and training facility staffed with trained experts. Yet what is ‘in store’ is not the polished corporate image, but rather a practical encounter with our everyday devices; with our digital shadows and data aggregates. It is a space in which we can learn to de-familiarise ourselves with our familiar technological environment, to look beyond the black mirror and the way it reflects our ‘selves’.”

Staying Honest, Getting Traction

On the final evening, Sara Hendren (artist, design researcher, and professor) inspired us to find new nouns and adjectives for our practices. I personally found the talk very comforting, in that it put words to feelings; in that we can create meaning in so many ways — as designers, as ‘impresarios’, as believers …

I also found the below — her “rationale for yielding to heartbreak” (in my interpretation: the amount of softness required to respond to important challenges and filter out the noise) — very beautiful:

“Yielding makes sure you can not unsee it”

In another session, Ben Fry (data visualization expert, principal of Fathom, co-developer of Processing) shared what qualities he is looking for when building a team: Curiosity > Self-motivation > Humility > Engagement.

“We try to run our studio as an academic environment”

And Ingrid Burrington (researcher, author), who gave an incredible talk last year (video below) provided a brief update on what seems to become a sequel to the previous project — as she is discovering new patterns just below our feet.
Her take on Staying Honest? Persisting, doing the “heavy-lifting” research.
We salute you!

And Even More Projects :)

Active Fields | http://galleryopen.org/active-fields/
Kawandeep Virdee has “recently become obsessed with procedural drawings by hand, inspired by minimal computer art and geometric repetition”, and the processes (involving his parents and friends) & results are just beautiful:

Simulate Systems In Emoji | http://ncase.me/emoji-prototype/
Hey, Nicky Case, going forward all my data visualization work should use Emojis 👍 This is just brilliant! 🎯

Harlem Shake - Kinect Edition
Don’t remember from which session this was, but this student work is worth 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Exhausting A Crowd | http://www.exhaustingacrowd.com/london

More of this, please! “Crowdsourcing captions for some random video footage of Piccadilly Circus”. That is strangely a pitch worth executing :)

Terrapattern | www.terrapattern.com

This is something I will certainly make sure to follow!

“Terrapattern enables citizen scientists, journalists, and other researchers to detect ‘patterns of interest’ in satellite imagery through an open-source search tool.”

Thank you Eyeo speakers, team & attendees for a great time! Hope to see you next year! ❤️