Some (Re)Assembly Required

From mapping to extrapolating, recontextualizing the data we've been given

Adam Rabinowitz
Adam Rabinowitz (Photo by John Anderson)

Increasing food shortages. Rising commodity prices. Tightening rare earth exports. Signs everywhere point to material scarcity. But the same doesn't go for information in our data-choked age, right?

Maybe. In our overheated, retweeted 21st Century Schizoid world, finding a useful, discrete data set is like looking for a needle in a server farm full of haystacks. Ask anyone scanning their social networks for relevant updates. Or better yet, ask the Department of Homeland Security. Maybe what we need is a pared-down focus, drawing out everything we can from some of our most essential elements: time, space, and nature.

One of these constructs – geotemporal location, which adds the missing dimensions of time and movement to digital maps – begins, for our purposes, millennia ago. The ancient world is one studied by Adam Rabinowitz, an assistant professor of classics and assistant director at the University of Texas' Institute of Classical Archaeology as well as the organizer of the SXSW Interactive panel Time Traveling: Interfaces for Geotemporal Visualization. Rabinowitz credits two reasons for his interest in the subject. Firstly, a class he was teaching on classical architecture: "There was this huge space in this very long period of time, and the students were absolutely lost almost all of the time." Moreover, the way historical information's usually taught – "boiling down" a few civilizations' greatest achievements to a recognizable handful – "really obscures a lot of the cross connections," Rabinowitz says. So with that, he began exploring "a way to visualize those connections – visualize interactions in the same time period but across space, and interactions in the same space but across different time periods."

The second inspiration was equally applicable. Rabinowitz is also a field archeologist, and he notes that the discipline experienced a "turning point in the late Nineties when [Geographic Information Systems] became a real important part of field archeology. ... But we haven't gotten to the same point with time," he notes. "The increase in the richness of spatial data, and the issues related to time and space and architecture, had me thinking about how we might represent those things, how we might visualize them in a way where we could see patterns more easily."

With the help of his brother Nicholas Rabinowitz, Adam set out to build that. Mashing up ancient timeline data with Google Maps, the brothers created GeoDia, which allows users to overlay ancient cultures, regions, and time periods, offering rich supporting data from the specific time and place. "If I'm in Athens in the fifth century, what's going on in Persia? What do things look like over there? Where are the sites? And how far away is it?" That said, Adam Rabinowitz notes, "I'm not an evangelizer for this particular combination of a timeline and a map – and I think that other members of the panel are going to have different ideas about how to deal with space and time together, and whether we should."

Another panelist, Irene Ros, a visualization research developer at IBM Research's Visual Communication Lab, says her group "is currently thinking about ways to visually represent history, specifically history as a shared experience of the crowd. Geography and temporal overlap are two of many ways to link historical data. During the panel discussion I will be sharing some examples of how we propose to present historical data, incorporating geotemporal visualization aspects. This project's motivation has been to help people broaden their perspectives on history, and we see time and geography as two dimensions by which people can relate to each other and each other's history in new ways."

There's seemingly limitless potential bundled in geotemporal applications – for example, with a rich enough data set, there's potential predictive power. One example is Google's attempts at flu tracking, plotting flu-related queries by area – as in, "Is green phlegm bad?" – to try discern trends, similarly to other public health and safety initiatives. Less heady uses can be seen in the rise of location-based social-networking services – Gowalla, Foursquare, and Facebook's Places application, where users can check in at businesses and receive rewards once they're there, in addition to being targeted by advertisers at the right place and the right time. "The immediate issues will have to do with advertising and selling stuff, because that's what drives a lot of the social side of things," Rabinowitz predicts. But location-based tech, particularly if coupled with time, raises privacy questions anew. Ros notes: "The privacy discussion is a great one to have in this context. Certainly, Web applications such as" – a no-longer-updated website which publicized tweets and check-ins from users away from their houses in order to raise privacy awareness – "try to bring this issue to light."

Privacy aside, Rabinowitz is looking at two overarching issues: standardizing data so it can be easily shared and crunched across platforms, and moving "beyond the time slider" for new interfaces in mapping time and space together. "I want to figure out [an interface] ... that is not animation-based, which has been the traditional way to do it. But it's static. You can watch it from beginning to end, maybe you can pause it, maybe you can scroll it back. But you can't change the parameters, you can't change the input, you can't ask it to show different things. And that, I think, is what the challenge is – [to] find a way we can manage temporal data sets, place them in space, and manipulate them."

Some (Re)Assembly Required

As with most emerging tech, whether geotemporal mapping will facilitate greater community and openness or more advertising and intrusion remains to be seen. Striking an optimistic tone, Ros is hopeful that "geotemporal visualizations can help us become a more connected society, not just in the same manner social media does (where we can easily find more people similar to us) but through our common existence in time and space."

Aside from time and space, there's no broader commonality than nature, one that's being recontextualized in disparate fields from architecture and design to business management. That's the topic at hand at the panel "It's Nature's Way": Innovative Tech Design Through Biomimicry.

Panelist Chris Allen is the CEO of the Biomimicry Group, which offers for-profit business consulting and nonprofit work with institutions of higher learning. Biomimicry is a subject the University of Texas Business School grad admits he somewhat stumbled into while working at a Bay Area recycling and resource management company. "How are humans going to develop economic value in the future as we're looking at finite systems?" he asks. "These were the things that were right in front of me in terms of my job. ... It's an elegant and exquisite idea to think about drawing on biology, where all this evolutionary research and development has been going on for 3.8 billion years."

Granted, drawing inspiration from nature is as old as the arts and sciences themselves. What's changed is the rigorous approach that can now be taken. Allen says biomimicry's application is best expressed by "looking to nature deeply and being able to extrapolate from organisms and systems what we call deep principles, or deep patterns, on why those organisms have been successful for hundreds of thousands of years. What can we learn from them in our design challenges?" Allen cites different scales at which biological principles can be gleaned and applied: from a basic shape or structural level, all the way to high-level "megasystems – big ecosystem-scale things. Depending on the design challenge," he says, his group "can draw design knowledge, skills, and technology" from the relevant area.

The clients Allen has worked for range wildly, as do the projects he's been a part of. While the influence and inspiration of nature can be reflected in undertakings as large as city-building, it's also applicable to projects as comparatively small as carpet patterns. Allen recalls his firm's work with carpet company Interface's Flor carpet-tile system. In such modular systems, individual squares can be replaced if stained, instead of a whole carpet; however, creating a pattern that could be easily matched "led us to the forest floor, where you have all these random patterns of leaves, sticks and dirt – very interesting patterns of color and line, but pleasing to the human eye." The result was a design where any tile could be freely switched out without worry, since "it doesn't really affect the patterns because it's all random to begin with."

Harnessing that chaotic, disruptive model can have a positive impact, Allen says, as it shakes up stagnant thinking. But the deeper principles informing biomimicry (drawing on the natural world for solutions) and geotemporal visualization (looking to yesterday to find tomorrow's patterns) should certainly be called upon as we map an uncertain future.

Related Panels

"It's Nature's Way": Innovative Tech Design Through Biomimicry

Saturday, March 12, 11am, ACC Ballroom A

Time Traveling: Interfaces for Geotemporal Visualization

Saturday, March 12, 12:30pm, ACC Ballroom B

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geotemporal visualization, biomimicry, GeoDia, geotemporal location, Adam Rabinowitz, Nicholas Rabinowitz, Geographic Information System, 'It's Nature's Way': Innovative Tech Design Through Biomimicry, Chris Allen

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