Ideas

Sharing Beautiful Data with the World

In June, thanks to the support of a grant from the Getty Foundation, we had the remarkable opportunity to bring nearly two dozen curators, technologists, and scholars to Cambridge for two weeks of coinvention, discovery, and reflection on the possibilities of putting data and media to work in museum collections. Although conceived as an engagement in digital-humanities “training,” we thought quick-and-dirty tutorials in javascript and topic-modeling would be less useful than the chance to discover ways of collaborating “in the wild” around questions of computation in art history, museums, and collections-based scholarship. And so the Beautiful Data workshop played out less as a training session than a design charette and summer camp for museophiles. Participants built data visualizations out of Legos and Post-It notes; they toured local museums with sets of wild provocations in mind, prompting them to see collections from novel perspectives; they engaged in conversation with designers, technologists, and neuroscientists as well as colleagues in core museum disciplines.

Out of all that work, a troika of publications have emerged—at once playful and practical, documentary and polemical—to reflect those explorations and share them with a wider community. With the intention of “open-sourcing” the elements and processes that came out of the workshop, these publications complement the material available on the Beautiful Data website, offering routes for exploration of this material that are meant to be applicable in diverse contexts. We hope that you will activate whatever elements seem useful to you, fostering the continuing evolution of Beautiful Data.

The field guide documents the concepts and flows of information that came out of the Beautiful Data workshop, linking critical discussion with invitations to experimentation and making. Using a range of modes, including case studies, maps, activities, and prototypes (and linking to online documentation of these elements), the guide aims to serve as a resource, providing various entry points into the dialogue surrounding Beautiful Data and promoting further experimentation around this material.

The prototyping game provides a set of raw materials for remixing and rethinking the ways in which we design experiences with objects. This playful framework, drawn from institutional missions and contexts, offers springboards for discussion, ideation, and project development.

The provocation cards, drawn from the work of participants in Beautiful Data’s weekend workshop component, provide prompts for adventures in museums, lightly provoking users to engage with these spaces in new and generative ways.

While these documents are the product of the entire Beautiful-Data community, they’re richly the result of considerable invention and energy on the part of two of our summer interns: Laura Mitchell, who provided editorial direction; and Ebru Boyaci, who furnished creative direction. Of course that very dichotomy—the editorial and the graphic—is an instance of the sort of thinking we wanted to break down and remix in the Beautiful Data workshop—and Ebru & Laura’s work constitutes a wonderful example of the kind of collaborative performance of thinking, dreaming, and doing that all of us present at the workshop saw glimmering in our exercises and iterations. So let’s extend that dialogue: take these documents, apply them in new contexts, and tell us what you make!

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Library Bridge

This fall, the Knight Foundation issued an open call for ideas in the form of a new News Challenge. (In 2011, metaLAB and Media and Place Productions were lucky enough to win such a challenge in support of development of Zeega.) The foundation is seeking an answer to the question: how might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities? The challenge reads:

We view libraries as key for improving Americans’ ability to know about and to be involved with what takes place around them. The library has been a vital part of our communities for centuries—as keepers of public knowledge, spaces for human connection, educators for the next generations of learners. While habits are changing, those needs have not. We want to discover projects that help carry the values of libraries into the future. We don’t have specific projects in mind, and you don’t need to be a library to apply. This contest is open to anyone, from public libraries to universities to businesses, nonprofits and individuals. We believe passionately in the role libraries have played in helping people learn about and participate in the world around them, and want to support the next generation of that essential endeavor. What captures your imagination about the future of libraries?

Building on it longstanding interest in reimagining the library and on several years of work within our ongoing design studio Library Test Kitchen, metaLAB has submitted the following proposal for a device we are calling LIBRARY BRIDGE:

As the notion of the library expands to encompass the world of web repositories and electronic documents, much of the work of culture, education, social exchange, and civic action that was traditionally carried out in brick-and-mortar libraries becomes invisible or gets lost in the sea of the World Wide Web. The global grows but at the expense of local forms of knowledge and memory. Library Bridge is designed to physically instantiate, feature, and share such local knowledge and memory.

Library Bridge assumes the form of an inexpensive popup station designed to tie together local libraries across the analog/digital divide. Designed to broadcast otherwise invisible content creation, curatorial work, and programming carried out on the local level, it serves as a bridge between branch libraries within and across local library systems, as well as a bridge to national and international libraries such as DPLA, Europeana, and Google Books.

Library Bridge is composed of a quick scanning station, a battery of e-Ink displays, receipt printers, and a pair of webcam-enabled exhibition cases. Its content stream is “tunable” to local needs and interests, but draws its content from THE LIBRARY CHANNEL, a www broadcasting platform that collects, curates, and communicates library-based content, working in collaboration with local librarians and citizens.

Library Bridges can be “chained” together at a library site to feature different content streams. They can be deployed not only within libraries, but also in local historical associations, schools, and civic spaces.

The comment period on this and other proposals is now open, so feel free to check in on the News Challenge at https://www.newschallenge.org/challenge/libraries/submissions.

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A Week of Berkman

Our home at the university is the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. It’s a remarkable place, and although its motto is clear—”exploring cyberspace, sharing in its study, and pioneering its development”—the community that comes together here is difficult to boil down to tweet length. It includes makers, thinkers, doers, and dreamers—folks who mash-up and elide those tidy categories with joyous abandon. But if you’re interested in the ever-changing roles of the network in culture and society, chances are good that some project, person, or team at Berkman has something to teach you—and something to learn from you as well.

Rather than dilate on Berkman’s riotous diversity here, however, I’m going to suggest you discover its riches for yourself. Next week the Center will offer a host of opportunities to hear from Berkman thinkers, learn about Berkman projects, and discover ways to learn from faculty, technologists, and researchers associated with the Center. These include an open luncheon on Tuesday (kicking off Berkman weekly lunch series, a victual as well as intellectual feast of visiting thought, energy, and opinion); a Wednesday research showcase, in which Berkman’s many projects will offer insight into their work in science-fair style; and on Thursday, a reception to kick off this year’s Digital Problem-Solving Initiative, a university-wide program that gets teams of students to work cooking up solutions to technology-laden challenges in research, teaching, and administration. And there’s more! You can read a complete list of Berkman’s boot-up procedures here. Do join in the fun!

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Raining Bricks—A Color Grading Experiment

metaLAB has been partaking in a Summer of Color this year, which has brought a different color-related topic before the group each week for a discussion followed by a short period of collaborative making and tinkering.

In looking at color’s relationship to the digital world, we examined the history and progression of black and white to film color processes and then to digital compression of color and processes of color grading. These last two items we explored through looking specifically at the capabilities of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera in our equipment arsenal.

One strength of the Blackmagic is its ability to capture 13-stops of dynamic range, with the choice between film Log and video REC709. Working with the film Log option, we shot sample footage, which, out of the camera appears muddy, muting saturation in favor of wider dynamic range information.

We then took this footage and bringing it into Final Cut X, did basic adjustments, reestablishing some contrast by raising the highlights, and lowering the shadows and also punching the saturation. Following on this, we also played with adjustment of color temperature to try and create a shift from a sunny day  to a rainstorm and back to a sunny day. The use of legos and brightly-colored umbrella was to make the color shifts more visibly apparent.

Subsequent color-grading tests will be done as part of the post-production process on our upcoming film, Cold Storage, which we anticipate for fall release.

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To New Heights — Quadcopter Testing

Yesterday we continued testing our aerial video setup, which consists of a Go Pro Hero 3+ mounted on an Zenmuse H3-3D gimbal attached to a Phantom 2 Drone Quadcopter. 

After our conservative first flight, which did not exceed 40 feet or so off the ground, we delved into learning more about our rig’s abilities. In the latest flight, we honed the Phantom 2’s GPS home point feature, which once locking on to multiple GPS satellites, enables the quadcopter to return to its launch position and land itself—especially useful as it automates this in the instance of a signal loss from the controlling unit. We also launched this time with the compass fully calibrated, which allowed for a greater degree of control and course correction.

Another feature we tested this time around is the ability to adjust the camera tilt in flight, especially useful because the amount of fisheye distortion from the GoPro changes depending on its direction relative to the horizon line or any other linear plane. The GoPro allows for shooting “Superview,” wide, medium, and narrow—each tier evidencing progressively less fisheye distortion, but at the cost of resolution and breadth of view. The current model can shoot 4K at 15 fps maximum, 2.7k at 30 fps maximum, and higher frame rates as you go lower. This time around we tested at 2.7k, knowing we would be able to crop out landing gear or propellers that might drift into the shot while still having at least a 1080p resolution after cropping.

This time we also used the ProTune feature on the GoPro, which shoots with a flat color profile—preserving additional dynamic range at the cost of color saturation. Coloring in post-production can then reinstitute the lost color, which we did using basic luma waveform scopes in Final Cut Pro X for reference in conjunction with the automated color balance correction feature.

Armed with additional failsafes tested at lower heights and a nuanced set of GoPro settings, we went much higher as evidenced by the latest video and stills. The stills were captured using the interval shooting settings on the GoPro and no color-grading was done on them.

Our intent is to use the quadcopter to capture video to fill out our shot list for our Cold Storage documentary project, but can foresee applications for other metaLAB projects, especially those dealing with outdoor tree and plant life.

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Phantom Drone First Test Flight

In preparation for getting some aerial footage to complete our Cold Storage documentary, we took our new Phantom 2 drone out for a spin, sporting a GoPro Hero3+.

Our test flight consisted of several increasing altitude pushes, hovering to test the unit’s auto-stabilization, and steering around several basic obstacles. To film with consistent speed and control will require some practice, but by the end of our flight we were gaining increasing levels of comfort with the operation.

The auto-stabilization works well in conjunction with the gimbal, but in reviewing the footage, it becomes apparent that on occasion the body of the drone would come into view before it settled. Using a less wide-angle option on the GoPro will hopefully address this the next time out, as well as minimize the degree of fisheye distortion.

The position of the sun will also be a challenge during our shoot for the film, so as to avoid the cast shadow of the device appearing in the shot.

There is GPS functionality and more advanced features we intend to test in the next flight along with greater heights in a more open space.

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What is Curarium?

Curarium — what is it? Even if you pegged it as an aquarium for curating, what exactly does that mean? To point out some of the features and functions that Curarium enables with various types of collections, we put together this animation. We are steadily marching towards our beta launch. In the meantime, follow the Curarium blog for updates.

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Curarium Embeddable Record

Similar to visualizations, individual records stored on Curarium can also be embedded within other media like WordPress. This gives access to the curarium interface for the record, plus any annotations associated with it.

The code that generates this particular embedding is:
<script src="http://www.curarium.com/records/1403.js"></script>
<div class='curarium' style='width:800px;height:600px;'></div>

Stay tuned at Curarium.com!

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Big in Japan

Thumbnail visualization of a subset of the Harvard Art Museums collection, Japanese objects from the 17th Century

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Cold Storage Teaser Trailer

Out at the Harvard Depository in Southborough, Massachusetts there are many stories to tell. How do the books come to and from campus nearly an hour away? What is the best way to store a library collection whose offsite holdings alone are mounting to ten million? What does it take to keep books at cold preserving temperatures and film reels at even colder ones?

Our upcoming documentary, Cold Storage, uncovers an ecosystem of laser scanners, UV fly zappers, cherry pickers and a mezzanine of machinery. It shows a place where books are sorted not by the methods of Dewey or those of the Library of Congress but by size.

In this trailer, take a peek inside the expansive interiors where our story begins and stay tuned for the debut of our experimental and interactive documentary this summer, which will enable you to explore the HD as a lens by which to examine the cultural and technical dimensions of libraries.

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