What we can learn from data, 3-D and a globe

IBM's Julia Grace on social media shifts and why 3-D and data are made for each other.

Web 2.0 Expo New York - 20% off with code RadarRows and columns are great for spreadsheet vendors, but end users have to jump through all sorts of cognitive hoops to make them work. We’re just so used to them, and our alternatives are so limited, we don’t know how bad we have it.

Julia Grace knows. As a researcher at IBM (and occasional commercial star), Grace is exploring new ways of finding, sorting and interacting with data — and her tools go way beyond spreadsheets and pivot tables.

Grace digs into her recent observations in the following interview, and she previews her keynote for the upcoming Web 2.0 Expo in New York.

Here are a few highlights from the Q&A:

  • The “I don’t care what you ate for breakfast” detractors are happy because many social media users are shifting away from personal updates. But Grace isn’t sure that’s a good thing. To illustrate, she recalls a pleasant personal exchange with one of her Twitter followers — someone she follows in turn — that probably won’t happen again. “I’m a data source now,” Grace explains. “I’m not necessarily a person.”
  • Her day job sometimes combines social data, geo location and a seven-foot-tall, three-dimensional globe.
  • Grace says the 3-D shift isn’t just for movie theaters and televisions. The third dimension could also change how we access information.

The full interview follows.

What insights or capabilities does social media data give us that we didn’t have 5-10 years ago?

Julia GraceJulia Grace: These technologies have reduced the barrier for entry for sharing, communicating and talking with other individuals. This is a story that’s been told many times before: we used to interact with people locally, then we could call them on the phone, then we could go on planes, then we could email them, etc.

But to expand this: I think of someone walking past a stream or creek who can use their social network to report on conditions: “This stream bed is really low.” “There’s trash.” Citizen science sorts of things.

And then your peers see this information and think “these people are interacting with the environment” or “maybe they’re exercising more” or “maybe they’re going to cool events.” This kind of data broadens your horizons and allows you to understand more about the people you know. You also come in contact with people that perhaps would have been inaccessible before.

As the novelty of social networks fades, how do you see them changing?

JG: The beautiful humanizing features of social networks are slowly going away. It’s becoming more about finding information fast, and getting it to your network fast.

As an aside: I met Omar Wasow, the co-founder of BlackPlanet, at a conference. He came up to me and said: “I read your Twitter stream. I feel like I know you.” We had this fantastic moment together. I told him I also followed his tweets, and I congratulated him for being on “Oprah.”

But I don’t think this kind of exchange would happen anymore because I don’t share the sorts of things I used to. I’m a data source now. I’m not necessarily a person. I’m curious to see what will happen in the future as we become more and more boring because we’re about news and not about people.

Julia Grace will make the case for a new dimension of data analysis at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York. Save 20% off registration with the discount code “radar.”

What will you focus on in your Web 2.0 Expo keynote?

JG: We’re at the dawn of the 3-D era. No longer will we go to the movies and see flat content. We’re looking to bring 3-D into our homes, 3-D in video games, etc.

I’ve been thinking about how this 3-D movement is affecting Web 2.0. How can we take data and digital artifacts and use 3-D to tie this information together and show it?

We had charts. We had bar graphs. Then we made the charts interactive and we made the bar graphs clickable. And then we built mashups and put stuff on Google Maps. But inevitably, these visualizations are distorted and they’re inaccurate. And you really can’t show rich data. All of the tweets and Facebook updates and photos and geotagged information can’t be shown on a bar graph.

But how can you represent that? How can I show something in 3-D? What we did at our lab was buy a seven-foot-tall, three-dimensional spherical projection surface. It’s a big globe that we can project data on.

This seven-foot-tall globe helps IBM researchers explore data in new ways. In this photo, the globe is illustrating the spread of disease as part of the STEM public health project.

When I saw the globe I thought it would be cool to gather all the photos I’ve taken over the past two years and chart them. For example, I have Halloween photos. I know when Halloween was. I know where I was on Halloween, more or less. But it would be much easier for me to find those photos if I could look at the geographic regions where my photos were clustered, and then zoom in.

Instead of sorting by time, I think in the future we’ll sort by and visualize by geography. That’s a much better way to organize and recall information. More importantly, using this globe and using 3-D is a cooler and more pervasive way to show social networking data and personal data.

When I go to use something like Twitter and Facebook, like all of us do, everything is always time ordered. But now that we’re generating truly global data, and we’re able to look at information on this global scale, location is more important than time. You need to know where information is coming from in order to really understand what’s going on.

As we adopt 3-D, will we need to deprogram our 2-D reference points?

JG: When we think about data, we think about something on a physical device. It’s something we have to query for. But if we could just show it on a display, then visually, I think it will communicate. It will come across very clearly because we won’t need complex mechanisms for sorting and searching. It will all be a natural and intuitive way to move around and zoom in as if it were on some sort of a map.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Update, 9/10: Here’s Julia Grace’s keynote from Web 2.0 Expo NY 2010.


Julia Grace will discuss the relationship between Web 2.0 and 3-D at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York, being held Sep. 27-30. Save 20% off registration with the discount code “radar.”

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