Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Designing Data Science - Conversation with Shruti Shetty

I met Shruti Shetty, Art Director at Adrenalin Media at conference in Sydney few months ago. Shruti kindly agreed to answer some of my questions in regards to Design and Data Science. Answers below.
Shruti Shetty - Art Director & Data Science enthusiast
Mauricio: Why your passion for Design and Data Science?
Shruti: Design has gone through quite a silent transformation over the years. The canvas, the technology, the aesthetics have all evolved significantly. Now more so than ever I think, design plays a very central role in tying all these changing features and packaging them for experience. Moving into the new age of the Data Economy, made me look and explore this new and next avenue that will impact design in the coming few years. This lead me to Data Science.
M: Data Science brings insights from analysing data sets. Design can then help present those insights on ways they are easily understood but also engaging and interactive. As a result, those new insights or findings from data sets can highly resonate with audiences...is that correct?
S: That's correct. Traditionally data analysis and handling has taken place in the development or mathematical sense of the world. With the help of design, we translate those complex models, from texts and numbers to patterns, which we can see and understand, and in context to a collateral situation or problem. As said, an image might be as powerful as thousand words.

M : Analysis of data is just one part of a story; in some cases investigative journalism, historical context, current market, political, economic and social dynamics have also a great influence on helping shape data into powerful insights. How do you see the future of Data Science with other disciplines and how Design can play a key role?
S: Patterns are everywhere. They are the very fabric of human behaviour, which has now translated to our online lives. With the power of technology and our need to be switched-on 24/7, we are contributing continuously to this massive data pool. This also means data is being continuously altered and influenced by all and/or more factors, than the ones mentioned above. Hence, before we even begin processing the dataset, we try to understand the circumstances in which the data has been collected. Sometimes this can help fill in the blanks, with the bigger picture. The purpose of data science is to help tell our story, with the events & features of our data. As the scene setting changes so does the climax of the story.
It can be quite hard to identify these influencers in the process of crunching numbers, and this is where visualisation comes into play, within the process itself. Visual tools also help determine the influencing features and charter an appropriate course for the story.We use tools like graphs, charts, plots etc. that display the workings of the data sets in a visual form. As mentioned before, design is a key interpretation of this story into a visual language, which everyone can understand.

M: How important is for Designers (who help Data Scientists) to be involved from the early stages of data analysis? so they can fully understand final insights and create solutions that matches what Data Science want to convey...
S: Designing or visualizing isn't an end mean or a final output stage. Many designers would agree, that design and creation is a journey and a process by itself. Such as data, design goes through it's own transformations, gradually. Hence for a desired optimised solution, collaboration between the two fields, is key. The key is to compliment and co-relate.
M: Is it the role of Designers to just help Data Science better visualise data insights? or the Design role goes far beyond that?... Can Design also help companies better collect data or help companies to find better ways to engage people to contribute to data? or even more, can design engage audiences to analyse data sets?
S: I began the studying data science, my intention was to implement this within our service pool, for our clients. The data we collect can help impact the strategy with which we can constantly improve our products or technology, given the patterns that our users or consumers display. Which in turn, gives them a better experience.

This evolution needs to be refuelled by new and more precise data, which can again be facilitated by design. In short, we use design to translate the given said data, and help grow and alter the data set, to maybe evolve into a new pattern. According to me, this agile approach would best suit this relationship, between data and design.
M: There might be plenty of data visualisation tools these days. What tools have you worked with and found them great to use?
S: Open source softwares such as R Project , and Python, provide a suite of visual tools to crunch and model the data, during the process. The output results can be visualised using a suite of other tools. There are a lot of javascript libraries out there, to help with this. For eg: My team has used, Raphael.js in the past, for a real-time RFID visualisation project. At the same time, there are many other public toolkits to help with this. The one I have found useful is the Tableau toolset.
The Method CaseThe project uses digital practices and processes to blur the lines between photography, data visualization, textile design, and computer science.
M: Organisations with no access to Designers or Data Scientists have a big challenge when analysing and presenting insights from data? Any tips for them?
S: Ideally, gathering of that knowledge and datasets would be the first step, moving into this direction. Maintaining records and collecting them in a consistent and efficient manner. I guess with any given field, you need to have access to expertise on that subject matter. If you don't have those skill sets in-house, you would seek those services elsewhere. Traditionally, companies have been gathering the knowledge for the datasets, but haven't been able to implement it's full potential, back into their businesses. For businesses that want to explore this area, there are plenty of options out there. There are independent Data Science organisations who can then collaborate and partner with other agencies, to help make use of their data. But at the same time, companies like ours - Adrenalin Media, are upscaling their skill sets to include this as part of their services, even for Small / Medium sized companies to big scale corporations.
M: Do you favour tools that automate the discoveries of regularities in data? meaning less work for data crunching and possibly just more work for finding compelling ways to present those discovered regularities?
S: I have learnt the hard way, there is no easy formula to help clean up datasets. Again, softwares like R and Python are quite versatile and can handle this process quite well. Personally I like the Google Refine programme, as it has some really nifty features such as a log of all the changes you have made to the dataset, which helps reverse back any mistakes you might have made.
M: As cloud services become more popular and affordable, companies now have the opportunity to collect massive amount of data. However the reality is most of that data gets untapped and/or un-used? Apart from using Data Scientists to help companies find better ways to achieve their key objectives/goals by effective analysis and presentation of Data turned into insights; is there anything else companies should be using their data for?

S: My answer would be similar to the above.
M: There is a lot of talk about how to use big data on organisations and companies but what about individuals, citizens using data for everyday life activities or local community based activities? Any examples or insights on this front?
S: Definitely! Why should all the big companies have all the fun? Sites like vizify.com help visualize your personal data into a cluster of visual graphics, aggregating all your stories online, from LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter etc. Companies and services alike, have realised the power of visualization and there are a lot of them out there empowering us to take charge of our own data footprints to chart and describe the journey, in a visual form. It also helps keep things fun and interesting for the users.
M: Powerful visualisation of data is key but what about user interaction with data. Any user data driven projects and at what point can interactivity be a nuance for users to fully engage with stories and insights?
S: Interaction is such a powerful engaging tool. Data science wouldn't exist without user interaction. It's the basis of the records that we use. At the same time, the benefits of our insights are then used to display that information for the user to 'interact' with, in terms of engaging with and modifying a visual art piece or using a said service or product. The User interaction is central to the validation of the predictions that we as Data Scientists make. And design can then present this case for the user to accept or reject. In either cases, that would be fed back into the cycle, for the whole process to flow again. It's such a powerful concept, if one thinks about it.
M: What are possibly the top three projects you believe have implemented great design for their data driven projects?
S: Design can be assessed aesthetically or functionally. A good design follows a balance of both. Amazon, Netflix are a few of the companies that continuously update their design based on the data and user patterns that they record. While they aren't aesthetically prominent, they are studied to be one of the most effective use of Information Architectures. Similarly, you see startups such as Triptease, Evr.st etc. who hire data scientists, terming them as 'Growth Hackers' to bust and crunch the numbers and deliver visually stunning outputs for their users. The recurring themes with all these projects is the agile collaborative way that the data and the design teams work together to keep their services and their presence fresh and valuable.
Triptease - For finding lust worthy destinations curated by users 
 About Shruti Shetty ( Twitter - LinkedIn)

Shruti has a design background and been working in the digital space for the past 8 years now.  After graduating from BillyBlue College in Sydney, with a degree in Communication Design, over the years she has specialised in User Experience and Information Architecture. In her current role as Art Director at Adrenalin Media in Sydney, her team produce online solutions, ranging from websites, campaigns to integrating new technologies into their services for eg: RFID.

Infographic explaining Big Data, made by James West and published by New Scientist. It starts with the most fundamental concept which drives big data 3 Vs of Big Data and then moves on to talk about trends, features and challenges of Big Data.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

User Experience Design Class @ General Assembly Oct 22th 2013

User experience talk by senior UX Consultant, Karen Callaghan @ General Assembly Tuesday 22th October 2013.
Get your objectives right, map your user journey, involved your content strategist and test!, test! test!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A religious life

We all have limited time, and limited energy, and limited attention. The whole drift of modern technology is to reduce it further. Many dreamed it would free us for leisure – but we were not told it would dictate to us what our leisure would consist in: playing around on Facebook, posting images on Instagram or Pinterest, obsessively writing blog entries that no one will read, and catching up on viral videos. The trap is sprung, the rabbit caught, the lobster is in the basket. Every keystroke is recorded, and used to advertise another set of things we don't want or need.

How do we escape? What if there is no escape? Why do we assume there is always an escape? The answer is that unless we do, we will certainly never find it, or if we do, we won't recognize it for what it is.

There is perhaps an analogy here with what was happening in the days of the Roman Empire. The early Christians were drawn more and more into the lives of the City and losing their focus on the things of God, on the necessity of prayer and solitude. The reaction was an exodus, led by Antony and
others, into a new state of life – the consecrated life of the monk, lived apart from others (though not closed to them). Large numbers of men and women determined to renounce marriage, private property, and even their own will. Monasteries grew up around these hermits, both in the Eastern deserts and the rainy hills of Ireland. It was in such "intentional communities" that civilized life was preserved and a new culture arose. (To study the founding documents of this movement see William Fahey, Foundations of Western Monasticism.)

There is much talk today of reforming the religious life, but it tends to focus on the topic of obedience, especially obedience to Rome. More interesting would be a discussion of self-dispossession through asceticism and a renewed focus on service to others, whether through teaching and nursing or activities that previously did not exist. It would give a fresh look to the monastic tradition if monks were expected to give up TV and the internet, except under very strictly controlled conditions. Some do so already. But it is not just monks and nuns who need this new kind of asceticism, this withdrawal from the world, not of the High Street, but of cyberspace.

The modern way of life, a society driven by consumption and sustained by debt, was built on the systematic destruction of contemplation and the idea of vocation, from the dissolution of the monasteries onwards. It made the idea of being called to a way of life and a mission in God much harder to comprehend. (I am not excluding the possibility that a modern person may have a mission to evangelize through the internet – in fact I believe many do.) If the new information and social technologies are not merely accidental, but express the very essence of our world in this period of history, then our specific response to them will help to bring about a new period of history.

A new society would be based on  a new kind of civilized life – a life of concentration, the giving of time, and the devotion of attention to the Invisible. In a way, of course, this cannot be "new", since human nature remains constant and our temptations are always the same. "When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food, and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it" (Gen. 3:6). These are the three temptations Christ defeated in the wilderness. They are also the three temptations of the internet. They can only be defeated by a positive, not a negative force – by love, not fear. We obtain real food, true delight, and wisdom from Christ. Then we are ready to be sent on a mission, wherever the needs of our age require a response.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reign of Quantity

Reign of Quantity refers to the title of a book by Rene Guenon, the Sufi convert from Catholicism. It was written in the 1940s, a book that played a seminal role for many people in the rediscovery of "metaphysical" thought outside the mainstream intellectual culture (just at a time when the logical positivists and analytic philosophers were destroying its last traces in Oxford). I have mentioned it several times, not for the trivial reason that it influenced me, but because there are insights in it that remain important, not least for educators. An article has recently appeared in Sacred Web journal by Patrick Laude looking back at Guenon's book.

One may bracket out the historical theory about repeating cycles (further developed by Robert Bolton in The Order of the Ages), or Guenon's tendency to confuse logic with ontology or Islam with Vedanta, while still retaining the thought that in today's world we are seeing a grand reversal or inversion that places Matter over Form, "quantity" over "quality" – amounting already in many places to the apparent disappearance of quality altogether.
(Connections could be made here to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is all about the recovery of quality, but I restrain myself.) As our determination to measure everything grew with the Enlightenment, so did our capacity to control it – or rather the lure of controlling it – until every human art from education to economics, from architecture to agriculture, became reduced to a numbers game. Human achievement was assessed by GDP, extension of life, earnings, records broken, products bought....

And yet numbers themselves are qualities before they are quantities, as the Pythagoreans knew. The loss of the symbolic, analogical, religious, and musical dimension of number made possible this modern profanation. Number as quality relates things interiorly to each other, through self-identity, proportion, and mutual implication. The world coheres with itself in number. Each number is full of meaning because it connects with everything else, and ultimately with the One that is beyond number.

The sheer fun of numbers, and a great deal of the mystery (what are they? why do they work?) is captured in books by Clifford Pickover (including this one that calls Mathematics "the loom of God") that would make a good addition to any library. If it is the use made of numbers by medieval Christendom in particular that interests you, going back to the Greeks, one classic work is Medieval Number Symbolism by Vincent Foster Hopper (Dover).

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Daring to imagine

Pilot of the Future
The imagination of the child is very powerful, and sometimes we can still recall the mystery with which it invested the pages of the comic books we devoured when young. There is an atmosphere, a richness, a whole universe associated with those now dulled and faded inks on cheap paper, as the fragrance of our childhood wafts from the page for a moment.

What did I see in them all those years ago? It is gone almost before I can ask the question. Yet it was something beautiful, uplifting, intriguing, amusing, enriching. Maybe even the artists and the writers don't have it any more, and maybe they – as adults – are trying to recapture it for themselves.

For me it was Dan Dare to begin with, the very "R.A.F." hero developed by Frank Hampson, who started life as a chaplain to the Interplanetary Patrol before being successfully relaunched as chief pilot of Earth's Space Fleet. Later I prowled the streets looking for American superhero comics, beginning with Batman and moving on to Marvel, where fantasy and humour were fully alive, thanks to the fun-loving personality of Stan Lee ("Nuff said"). I have
written about all this before.

The greatest dynamic artist of the comics was Jack Kirby (d. 1994), their greatest draftsman Neal Adams. Reading these comics changed the way I looked at the world, saw shadows, perceived colour and movement. Kirby (the "William Blake of comics") was interested in gods, and raided the pantheons of many cultures including the Norse and the Greek before creating his own "New Gods" and "Forever People", "Eternals" and "Celestials". The costumes and the characters merged – each costume an emblem, almost a kind of heraldry. These were people representing something the archetypal, elemental forces of nature and human personality. The original Fantastic Four were earth, air, fire, and water, their arch-nemesis the technologically enhanced but humanly ruined Doctor Doom (a model for George Lucas's Darth Vader), their unpredictable ally, the Silver Surfer, representing the energies of the cosmos as a whole. Kirby's instincts were sound.

The new wave of interest in superheroes, fuelled by the coming-of-age of CGI in cinemas and the need for blockbuster appeal, is a mixed blessing, of course. The movies that succeed manage to be iconic, fast, and humorous. Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man is all these things, which is why he is currently worth his weight in gold. But this brings us to the real point. So far I have said much of this already, and have repeated it here mainly to have an excuse for showing some more of the gorgeous artwork – so much better than the boring frames copied by Roy Liechtenstein and turned into fine art in the 1960s.

In search of the winning formula for a successful blockbusting movie, the producers, for all their lack of imagination, have stumbled on the true archetypal conflict of our time – not just the conflict between Good and Evil, but the conflict between Man and Machine. It is the same battle that goes on in The Lord of the Rings around the Ring as "Machine", and in Kafka where the Machine is a bureaucracy, and in the Terminator movies, and so on. But it also goes on in real-life labs and abortuaries.

In SF and comics, the human imagination is free to run wild – to explore what we really want to have and to achieve as human beings. The present generation of scientists and nerds grew up on Star Trek and set about making those beloved technologies real. The same is happening with Tony Stark's gadgets today. At the end of Iron Man 3, having destroyed his own inventions, Tony bends down and picks up a screwdriver. Whether he is wearing the suit or not, "I am Iron Man," he admits. These stories form part of our process of self-invention, and at the same time (if there is to be a real story) they enable us to explore the peril of our humanity in this new world, perhaps even to rediscover that humanity, as Tony does with his engineer friend in the first movie, his girlfriend in the second, and a little boy in the third.

Kirby's Machine Man
"Nobody's a nobody," says Agent Coulson in the TV series Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nobody is to be used, exploited, or discarded. We are here to become more human, not to become all-powerful. Moral choices, and ultimately acts of compassion and love, are the only way to find meaning and joy. But the big debate worth noting in all this, discussed in Humanum recently, is about ends and means. Is technology just a screwdriver, just a tool, neutral in itself, that we pick up and use, or does it change us? Does the new tech, for example, by breaking the world down into bits of information and reassembling these into simulacra, render us less free to think in terms of wholes and natural ends – making us, in a sense, much less inclined to contemplation and more to action, to subordinate all matter to human desire? Is an alternative technology even possible? That may be to stretch our imaginations even further than the comics can reach.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Knowing the Good

In an interview with Eugenio Scalfari, published in La Repubblica on 1 October 2013, Pope Francis was asked, “Your Holiness, is there is a single vision of the Good? And who decides what it is?” He replied, simply, “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good.” Scalfari pushes him: “The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his conscience. I think that's one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope.” Francis responds, “And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them.”

The “subjectivity” of the Pope’s approach puzzled some, but what he said was perfectly in line with the rest of Catholic teaching. It did not aim to be a complete or systematic teaching on conscience, which can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church to which the Pope adheres. It was certainly not an “authoritative” statement, of the kind that emerge when a Pope is called to speak from the “chair of St Peter” to resolve some matter in dispute for the whole Church. It was a conversation, an interview, a friendly engagement. It was one of the things that Pope Francis does best.

In particular, it did not mention our responsibility to develop and educate this “vision” or “idea” of good and evil that we may have. We do not just pick it off the shelf, or let another (whether it be a parent or a teacher or a newspaper) determine it for us. The Church’s teaching on morality is part of that process of self-education – that is, assuming we give any credibility to the Church as an authority for us, then we will need to take her teaching into account as we work through the arguments and concerns in our own minds, rationally. (She is one factor, but an important one.)

The statement is right, and corresponds to what John Henry Newman wrote in his famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, in stating that we can only fight evil and follow the good according to our own best idea of what these are. Even if we are going to make mistakes, because we have not yet fully understood everything, we have to do the best we can in the given moment with what is available to us.

In a previous post (How We Know) I explored the way in which our minds know the world around us. This time I want to reflect on how we know Good and Evil, and discern between them. I take it that one lesson of the Genesis
account of the Fall and the taking of the Fruit concerns this very question, for the Serpent tells the couple that “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). This raises a host of questions, not least what is supposed to be wrong with “knowing good and evil”?

The answer seems to lie in the difference between knowing good, and knowing good and evil, and knowing evil. God wants us to know the good, not to know evil. We often assume we can only know the good if we have a choice between them, and know them both equally. But that is not right. If we know them equally, we are changed by both, and our knowing of the good is changed and spoiled. In the end, if we know both, we will know only evil. On the contrary, if we know the good, by adhering to God, the evil becomes irrelevant to us.

But what is the good? What makes it part of the world? What kind of thing? It is any kind of thing, provided it will fulfill and complete us. It is what we are drawn towards because we want to become fully what we were made to be. We see our fulfillment in the “good”, and we are attracted by the radiance – the “beauty” – that connects us with it, like a pathway across the water.

Aquinas and others have seen Beauty as an aspect of the Good, and these ideas are certainly very closely interwoven, but they are not identical. Beauty is the radiance of the Good and the True, and that radiance of being is another aspect of Love, which is the self-giving act at the heart of all existence, especially the existence of God. It is the dynamic act, the verb not the noun, that reaches out and across the differences between things and unites them, or gives them the savour of one another. That is how the angels communicate, according to St Denys – by the giving of light. God himself dwells in light, inaccessible light (1 Tim. 6:16). It is inaccessible because it is his gift to himself; and at the same time it has become accessible, because he has given us this very self in his Son.

We know evil by suffering it. We know the good by being drawn to its beauty and ultimately by sharing it. And as for conscience, that is the self-knowledge, the eye of the heart, the memory of the breath of God (Gen. 2:7), by which we recognize the good as good – as containing that promise for us. No wonder we must each have “our own vision of good and evil”. No one else can do our seeing for us.