Graphic recording by Jonny Goldstein of
“I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.” — Barack Obama
“Technology is a means to an end, and that end is people.” — Red Burns

ITP’s Obamathon

Daniel Shiffman

Co-founded in 1979 by Red Burns, ITP is a two-year graduate program located in the Tisch School of the Arts whose mission is to explore the imaginative use of communications technologies — how they might augment, improve, and bring delight and art into people’s lives. The focus has never been about developing new technologies as an end goal but rather how technology can affect change in the world for the better. This all started with Red Burns and the Sony Portapak, the first portable video camera, as a tool to empower all voices.

Red Burns with the Sony Portapak camera in 1971.

These days, a topic students have an unending appetite to study and explore at ITP is data. Understanding and making use of data is a new and essential aspect of who we are and how we process the world. Government data is available and ubiquitous in many different forms from and organizations like The Sunlight Foundation. Historically the data associated with the records of presidents is housed by the National Archives and Records Administration. The Presidential Records Act of 1978 states that these must be made available to the public within 12 years of the end of a president’s term.

In 2017, things are a little different. Barack Hussein Obama, the 44th President of the United States, is known as the first “social media president.” (In the afterglow of Obama’s farewell speech, let’s leave out, at least for the moment, mention of our next Twitterer in Chief.) So why wait any amount of time for social media “records”? Everything is out there already: consumable, parseable, and ripe for remixing and analysis. Imaginative ideas from writers and artists have always been essential to our social political discourse. What can today’s data artists create to add to the conversation?

On January 5, 2017, the White House announced the release of bulk downloads of social media data associated with the Twitter, Facebook and Vine accounts of the White House Staff, President Obama himself, and Michelle Obama.

The purpose of this release is to invite the public to help archive and memorialize the data. The White House contacted ITP in the hopes that we might be able to seed some creative ideas: Twitter bots, data visualizations, research tools, generative poetry, and other art projects.

And so on January 6th, one day after the release, a gathering of artists and coders from ITP (Tisch School of the Arts), IDM (Tandon School of Engineering), and the NYC creative coding community gathered at ITP to examine the data, brainstorm ideas, and build projects.

Video by Jenny Lim

The day began with a short presentation about the data itself, followed by a brainstorming session on project ideas and technical strategies for working with the data. In addition to the official release from the White House, attendees of the Obamathon contributed datasets including presidential approval ratings, instagram posts, full texts of Obama’s weekly addresses and proclamations, and more. All example code and links to the data can be found at the ITP Obamathon Github repository.

Photo by rebecca (marks) leopold

While we started with a discussion around the history of Obama’s presidency, the conversation quickly moved onto the incoming administration. Participants were encouraged to create projects that took a broader look at elections, government, and data. In this sense, we hope the Obamathon will be the first of many events that facilitate and encourage artists to develop work that is critical and creative and “brings about change” in the world for the better.

Here is a selection of projects created at the Obamathon.

PapaObama and MamaObama by Ari Melenciano

@PapaObamaSays and @MamaObamaSays are twitter bots that reply to tweets with wisdom from President Obama and First Lady (the quotes also infused with affection and colloquialism).

The idea was initially sparked while I was on the train, wishing that I could be able to ask Michelle Obama for relationship advice — since she has always been someone that I admired, respected and viewed to be very wise. When attending the #ITPObamathon, I had no idea what I wanted to create — but the wish I had while on the train, lingered in my thoughts. While at the #ITPObamathon, I was given a crash course on creating a twitterbot. I decided to implement my wish of being able to have a conversation with the First Lady, into my project for the day — thus creating a twitterbot that allows anyone to have a virtual conversation with the First Lady and learn from her wisdom. I enjoyed creating the @MamaObamaSays twitterbot so much, that I attempted to quickly create a complementing @PapaObamaSays twitterbot, as well. These accounts have now become my attempt at immortalizing the grace of what has been my favorite First Family, and made them accessible to anyone that may need them.

Obama Wanted To by Sam Lavigne

Audio of every instance of Obama saying the phrase “I want to” in public speeches.

Obamify Me by Tanya Campbell

A website that invites you to “Obamify your mood” with Obama gifs.

Ask FLOTUS by Antonius Wiriadjaja

A chat bot that responds to you with answers from @FLOTUS associated with the #AskFLOTUS hashtag. (With help from Sam Ita and Shivanku Kumar.)

ObamaGotchi by Kyle Greenberg & Rosalie Yu

ObamaGotchi is a pocket pet that relives all of President Obama’s tweets, and displays information about his approval rating at the time of each tweet. Favorite, retweet, and watch your ObamaGotchi grow as Obama’s social media presence grew online and admiration grew in our hearts.

Visualizing the @POTUS Social Network by Jaycee Holmes

A visual diagram of twitter mentions by @POTUS.

Obama Yr Face by rebecca (marks) leopold

Feel yourself feeling by replacing your face with the 44th POTUS.

ObamaSmile by Jamal Combs & Osama Sehgol

Smile like Obama and find out what he likes.

First Lady Looper by Tibor Udvari

First Lady Looper enables you to mix a selection of Michelle Obama Vine snippets into loops. (source code)

Obama Mosaic by Daniel Shiffman

A Processing example and video tutorial demonstrating how to create a “photomosaic” portrait of President Obama from all White House Facebook photos.