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Eyeo: Unveiling the Magic of Data

Posted in Knerds on June 24, 2013 by

Photo by Flickr user pdinnen

Earlier this month I was lucky enough to attend Eyeo Festival, a conference where the ideas of data, interaction, and art are explored together as a whole.

It’s called a conference, but it doesn’t feel much like one. I would say it feels more like a celebration. A celebration for the community of dataists, coders, designers, and artists that are working at this intersection. A celebration at which to marvel at the magic and transformative power of data.

At Knewton, I work as the data storyteller. I spend most of my time making sense of large sets of complex educational and technical data, finding stories, and exploring the most effective way to communicate them truthfully. You can imagine how Eyeo was an incomparable opportunity to get inspired.

Over four days of talks and presentations, scientific references were indistinguishably entangled with artistic ones. This combined approach to information, creative as much as analytical, was simply taken for granted. It did not require an explanation for the attendees, whose nature is to seek meaning by combining realms of knowledge. Just as an example, designer Giorgia Lupi, who runs a data visualization studio in Milan, quoted H.D. Thoreau to illustrate her talk. On the same stage a day later, Memo Atkins, a Turkish installation artist based in London, quoted Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan.

This year’s Eyeo also saw a big effort to explore the possibilities for social good behind data visualization and analysis. Some speakers, like TacticalTech’s Maya Ganesh or DataKind’s Jake Porway, presented projects that pushed for human and civil rights advocacy, with data as a primary material.

These socially involved speakers conveyed the idea of a required responsibility when approaching data that has an effect on society. Respecting the variety of potential perspectives and being truthful to the analysis are vital. This was illustrated by Columbia’s SIDL Lowe and Kurgan, who proposed to explore data by understanding it as an essential part of a societal feedback loop.

Others like Ben Fry, co-creator of Processing, represented a more investigative approach to visualization. In particular, he went over the process behind a piece on the political structure in China. Not only was the result beautiful, but it represented one of the best examples of the way data journalism is finding its own language to tell stories, a language capable of unprecedented insight into the complexity of our societies.

His colleague in the creation of Processing, Casey Reas, focused on artistic and inspirational uses of software. His talk reviewed the history of computational art and explored how designing tools for creation (in our case software, algorithms, electronics) can help creativity thrive.

Data artists are the researchers of the experience of data, of how we communicate, share and interact with technology and its trails. Eyeo was a reminder to me of how technological innovation is strongly linked with the quest for new languages in storytelling, and how only through the experimentation we can drive transformative ideas.

One of the most beautiful things about Eyeo is how brand-free it feels. The organizer’s goal seems to be to agglomerate as many intelligent projects as possible. It is a space for exploration and experimentation, and as sometimes happens with kids, it seems to thrive when left alone to its curiosity.

At Eyeo, you sometimes forget to remind yourself how much everything you witness seems to belong to the realm of magic. But beyond the awe, there was something else that excited me that I at first had troubling verbalizing. Something that could help me understand the vibrancy of the community gathered by the event, the celebration — something I suspected had to do with education.

On the second night, while waiting for everybody to sit for the last talk, I was chatting with Ben, a filmmaker interested in the scalability of data-based storytelling, and Mark, a designer, on what education would look like in a few years.

That casual conversation sparked it. What had been stirring me was the approach to learning that you could breathe at Eyeo, an approach based on curiosity, on play, on experimenting. In five days, I talked to dozens of people, all of them with admirable careers. Enlightening data investigative work, inspiring installations, beautiful pieces. But I didn’t meet a single person who didn’t consider herself to be learning.

Every single one of the attendees was engaged in an active quest to find her own perspective, her own language, to explore and enhance the experience of data. The only way to do that is if you consider your only job to be learning. Learning as the inevitable result of curiosity, as the road to finding new ways to telling the story of now.