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Light Data Bars ” installation prototype by Batjo. Read recipe to recreate it in the cookbook “Data Driven News Installation. A Digital Fabrication Cookbook for Journalists

Great data physicalizations, and what journalists can learn from them — Part 2

While working on Batjo, we surveyed dozens and dozens of data physicalizations. This post is the second of a series where I present an interdisciplinary selection of data objects and/or artistic installations, by focusing on projects that have potential applications/inspiration for journalism.

“Social data objects”

As introduced in the first post of this series, this overview is inspired by the concept of “social objects”, discussed by Nina Simon in her book “The Participatory Museum”.

a social object is one that connects the people who create, own, use, critique, or consume it. Social objects are transactional, facilitating exchanges among those who encounter them

~ Nina Simon, The Participatory Museum, Chapter 4.

Such objects spark a conversation and help strangers connect, on the basis of a shared experience. Journalists too, in their service to a healthy public sphere, also perform a similar function with their reporting. This makes Nina Simon’s description of social object as good starting point to imagine ways in which journalists could use a physical medium to communicate data.

In the first post of the series, we looked at artifacts that are personal, familiar and collaborative. Here we will explore four other characteristics of social data physicalizations, by highlighting more examples of data physicalization designed to connect people by promoting interactions between participants.


In some cases we surveyed, the way in which some people interact with an artistic installation becomes part of the installation itself: the interaction of some participants provides a performance for the rest of them, with people naturally stopping by to watch. This instance is perfectly depicted by the many projects that transform the environment into a playable instrument. For example, The Sensoric Garden CLAVIER, described by Eva Hornecker and F. Wilhelm Bruns, is a walkable keyboard where light sensors detect the steps of the people passing by and converts them into sounds, soon having people improvise dances and songs to entertain others.

Source: Images from the study: Hornecker, Eva & Bruns, F. (2004). Interactive Installations Analysis — Interaction Design of a Sensory Garden Event. Interactive Installations Analysis. 9th IFAC Symp. ADE Human-Machine Systems, Atlanta.

A data physicalization project that somehow features this characteristic is the Walkable Affinity Map, which stemmed from Dario Rodighiero’s thesis at the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC). A huge visualization of academic collaboration is printed on the floor of a room, and participants can either walk on the visualization to read and explore it, or stand on higher floors and watch others walking and interacting with the installation.


Surprise can be a powerful emotion in making an experience memorable, and in stimulating interaction. This effect can be achieved by making an object behave differently from what normally expected. An example of this is the project Augmented Shadow by Joon V. Moon. The project consists of a table which is in fact a rear-projector screen, cubes that can be positioned on the table, and a camera that detects the positions of objects on the table. The projector is used to cast artificial digital shadows of the cubes: the shadows behave realistically in terms of physics of the light cast upon them, but the shape of the shadow changes on the basis of the position of the cube and has no resemblance to the natural shadow that a cube would cast. The shadow cast by a cube could become birds, trees and houses. It would be very interesting to adopt a similar concept to represent data values.

Source: Augmented shadow by Joon Y. Moon


Physical objects offer many expressive possibilities and evocative metaphors that would be impossible with digital media. Among the many examples, we were really intrigued by the idea to use the sense of pain to communicate data. Physical ain is a very powerful metaphor that can be used to create a strong, visceral, and highly emotional bond with data being narrated and, on top of this of all, it is very hard to involve such a physical sense in online narratives..

In the performance Constraint City / the pain of everyday life by Gordan Savicic, the artist wears a jacket with straps and the walks around the city with a wireless game console. As the console intercepts a closed wi-fi network, the straps on the jacket begin to tighten. The stronger the wi-fi signal, the tighter the straps close. In the artist’s words, the concept is that we rely on networks to communicate and

“Closed networks, such as WEP or WAP restrain access to this layer. Thus, being expelled from the Internet can be a painful act and harm you to a certain extend. The project “constrain city walks” let you literally, feel this pain, by tightening a worn chest strap which is embedded in an ordinary jacket. The stronger the signal of perceived restriction, the harder your breath!”

~Gordan Savicic , Constraint City / the pain of everyday life

A similar idea is found also in Call me choke me by Gunnar Green, where the artist devised a collar that connects to the person’s mobile phone activity. Whenever a call is made to the mobile phone, the collar tightens, replicating the ambivalence of our relationship of pleasure and pain with mobile devices.

Source: Call me choke me by Gunnar Green

Informally interactive

(a.k.a.) Build and break-apart a data representation

Users can manipulate physical data representations directly and casually, to explore their many facets and see things from different perspectives. Physical data objects can thus be more inclusive and intuitive than purely visual ones, and not just because they are accessible to blind people and have a lower tech barrier. They can also be a great tool for data and visual literacy: after all, long before swipes and clicks, human have thousands of years of experience in figuring out how to interact with the analog world through an almost infinite range of bodily motions and hand gestures.

The sculpture Social Behavior Pyramid by Georgie Pope depicts the behavior of commuters with or without an MP3 player. The shape of the work encourages users to fold the four triangles along the hinges to compare the different subset of the data thus creating a new shape and narrative.

Source: Social Behavior Pyramid by Georgie Pope • Image from Vande Moere, Andrew & Patel, Stephanie. (2009). The Physical Visualization of Information: Designing Data Sculptures in an Educational Context. 1–23.

The data object Tetris Stack, by Christine Lam, consists of several plexiglass glass layers, one for each level in the Tetris game. Each layer has slots for the Tetris pieces, sized depending on the frequency each piece appears in that level of the game. Users can take apart the different layers and single pieces.

Source: Tetris Stack by Christine Lam • Image from Vande Moere, Andrew & Patel, Stephanie. (2009). The Physical Visualization of Information: Designing Data Sculptures in an Educational Context. 1–23.

The Rearrangeable Bar Chart, in which the user can take out of the different colored bars and rearrange them as desired, was developed by Yvonne Jansen, Pierre Dragicevic and Jean-Daniel Fekete to develop several experiments on data physicalization on how users interact with and evaluate data conveyed through physical artifacts. One conclusion from such research is that the physical artifact outperformed its digital counterpart in information retrieval tasks.

Source: 3D bar charts depicting the evolution of country indicators over time built specifically for the following study. • Image from Yvonne Jansen, Pierre Dragicevic, Jean-Daniel Fekete. Evaluating the Efficiency of Physical Visualizations. Proceedings of the 2013 Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems(CHI 2013), Apr 2013, Paris, France

Want more?

You can read Part One of this review, with other amazing data physicalization that are personal, familiar and collaborative.

If you are a journalist interested in learning more about data physicalization, visit us on Batjo: Bits, Atoms and Journalism or follow us on Twitter.

To anyone approaching the issue and looking for a more grounded and comprehensive approach to data physicalization, we strongly recommend The Data Physicalization Wiki with the companion List of Physical Visualizations; the outstanding work done by pioneering researchers at Aviz, MIT Media Lab, and HCI Sorbonne.