[Reading #8] Discounting, data stories and long journalism

1. Discounting

So discounting is what retailers do – at Christmas, to seize the momentum of buying ahead of Christmas, and, in June, to get cash rather than debts on the books ahead of the end of financial year.

But it’s something we all do. Think about the choice between watching TV or doing exercise. We know going for a run is better for us. Thinking for next month, maybe even next week, you probably imagine tying your laces and doing it. But faced by the decision today, we tend to choose the TV. It’s easier. We know it’s better to do exercise, but the immediate satisfaction of sitting on the couch is more attractive.

Gareth Hutchens explains, in an SMH op-ed, that’s why we use credit cards – the hit from buying something with our credit card now trumps the cost of the interest we’ll pay down the track.

We “discount” future consumption in favour of present consumption. The question is by how much, and that depends on our “discount rate”.

To find the discount rate, economists ask: How should we compare the welfare of future generations to the welfare of the current generation?

There are two ways to answer it. We can base our calculations on market interest rates (the positive approach), or we can base them on ethical judgments about the relative values of people’s lives (the normative approach).

Seems simple, but this simple idea of discounting underpins everything we think about the future, from building infrastructure to dealing with climate change.

2. The climate debate is a failure of data visualisation – can we tell data stories better?

Anyone who’s sat through a climate science talk intuitively knows this. It’s serious. Talk to climate researchers offline and they’re compelling. Go to a talk and – with notable exceptions – it’ll be a glacial drift of excel graphs.

Illustrators and other artists used to be crucial parts of research laboratories, though in most labs they’ve long since been let go. Watching Ben Hosken (from Melbourne data visualisation powerhouse Flink Labs) talk last week at #media140 in Brisbane, I couldn’t help but see it as a renaissance of the artist’s role in research.

Flink Labs did this project for #apps4nsw using real time Sydney Buses travel data (it’s not real time now though – the RTA removed public access to the data within hours of the program finishing). I love the potential of these kinds of projects for real time city governance – the sort of projects MIT’s Media Lab and Stamen have specialised in.

The #media140 talk was fairly introductory, not much new. But what I found interesting was Hosken’s broad principles had little to do with the technical side of data crunching, writing algorithms and doing graphics. Here’s a series of my tweets from the session:

Expressing data’s story in a way that doesn’t obscure the truth… also need to tell a really good story.

Data viz is telling a story you can interact with and explore, not broadcast

Tell the story, don’t just show data

& any storytelling RT @allinthemind: “not about the average”.. biggest & smallest sometimes reveal most enriching data viz stories

It’s finding the story in the data – not just processing the data unvarnished. Though as Natasha Mitchell (Radio National’s All In The Mind) said, using outliers to tell the story is ripe for misrepresentation. Take care.

Stanford’s Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer wrote a great paper on telling stories through interactive visualisation. German visual analytics researcher Enrico Bertini (from Fell In Love With Data) blogged the key points in a guest post on Andrew Vande Moere’s Infosthetics blog:

1. The table with the design space can help you during the design phase to understand what components you can use in your solution. Choose a genre, a visual narrative tactic, and a narrative structure. You can also think creatively and see if there are useful combinations of these elements that have never appeared before. Alternatively, you can think out-of-the-box, and come up with new solution altogether.

2. Be careful with the level of interactivity and messaging you provide. This is probably a choice that you have to take early in your visualization project: do you want to give lots of freedom and risk that the message is not conveyed clearly or you prefer to guide the reader but remove the thrill of exploration?

3. The hybrid models are ready-cooked solutions that you can use right away. Again, these can both serve as a way to find a model that suits your message, or just as a starting point to create new hybrid models.

The most popular software being used by designers and others who aren’t code natives is Processing, but there’s a stack of others. Computer World reviews 22 free packages including Data Wrangler, Google Refine, R Project, Google Fusion Tables, Impure, Tableau Public, IBM’s Many Eyes, VIDI, ZOHO Reports, Choosel, Exhibit, Google Chart Tools, JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit, Protovis, Quantum GIS (QGIS), OpenHeatMap, OpenLayers, OpenStreetMap, TimeFlow, Gephi and NodeXL. Get visualising.

3. Long form journalism

A big trend’s just about always complemented by its almost opposite. So while Twitter’s firing, there’s a balanced explosion in long form writing. You can see it in the thriving New Yorker magazine. Yes, Twitter is limited to 140 characters, but it’s driven by the deeper content of features, books, documentaries, conferences, movies and a hundred other things.

Annabel Crabb wrote a typically great piece for ABC’s Drum on the topic.

And the truth is, even though reading long articles on screens can be fiendish, especially when you are – as so often social media users do – breaking off every 30 seconds to check Twitter or let your intimates know that you’re up to page six and you feel a bit like a burrito, the internet is also coughing up new ways to recover, locate and enjoy longer pieces.

She mentions Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky’s site longform.org and Instapaper – both fast friends with iPad owners. There’s also The Paris Review and, one of my favourites, Longreads.

I was a music writer for ages, though I seem to be having a break. Editing Cyclic Defrost magazine, we shifted short reviews to the web and focussed the magazine around long feature length profiles and essays. With in depth music writing all but gone from the papers – most dailies get syndicated copy, and the magazines get more and more concise – we wanted to give more context, looking at creative communities and the broader culture. And that’s something you can’t approach in the usual 15-30 minute, 500 word feature.

Doesn’t need to be in print, either. Dan Hill’s great blog City of Sound is a case in point. He’s leaving Australia with this piece on planning in his wake. There are a stack of other writers doing much more interesting critical writing on blogs than anywhere – Alison Croggon, Anwyn Crawford, Linda Carroli – mostly because there isn’t the space in print publications for that depth.

4. Other good stuff

Greplin is a personal search engine that allows you to search all your online data in one easy place.

Scribble notes while you surf the web with Markup.

Fascinating Cindy Frewen Wuellner series on future cities at her Urban Verse blog.

Kate Carruthers asks if innovation actually helps.

And N+1 magazine on elites.

Caught in an information rip?

There’s so much information out there that journalists are starting to code in languages like R or Python to weed out patterns and spikes in data sets. I’m not sure how many of these data journalists there are, yet. But there’s no question there are stories to be found (search ‘data journalist’ and you’ll find pages of guides to the emerging field).

And more and more we’re actually obsessed by information. Think about the flow of stories and observations and thoughts on Twitter. The number of blogs covering data visualisation and infographics (though that trend seems to have peaked). The way we use spatial apps in a crisis like the Queensland floods. And in the world of science, we’re building up massive troves of data.

It turns out searching is one of our primary drives.

In 1954, psychologist James Olds put electrodes in rats’ brains for an experiment. By accident, he discovered that if the probe was put in the lateral hypothalamus of the brain, and the rat was allowed to press a lever and stimulate its own electrodes, it would press the lever until it collapsed. Ever since, people have assumed that the lateral hypothalamus is the brain’s ‘pleasure centre’.

But that didn’t make sense to neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp.

The animals, he writes in Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, were “excessively excited, even crazed.” The rats were in a constant state of sniffing and foraging. Some of the human subjects described feeling sexually aroused but didn’t experience climax. Mammals stimulating the lateral hypothalamus seem to be caught in a loop, Panksepp writes, “where each stimulation evoked a reinvigorated search strategy”.

It is an emotional state Panksepp tried many names for: curiosity, interest, foraging, anticipation, craving, expectancy. He finally settled on seeking. Panksepp has spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he believes are shared by all mammals, and he says, “Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems.” It is the mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of the bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world. It’s why, as animal scientist Temple Grandin writes in Animals Make Us Human, experiments show that animals in captivity would prefer to have to search for their food than to have it delivered to them.

For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs. Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. He says that when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.

That’s from an Emily Yoffe piece in Slate on why our brains are hard-wired to love Google, Twitter and all those other things.

So that’s why I wade through writers’ blogs and scan feeds and pore through books and magazines. It’s powerful, very useful, and probably not particularly healthy. But is it just the way things are?

Maybe. Kristin Alford blogged yesterday about her search for ‘flow’ amids the interruptions.

Attaining flow requires sustained thinking and the creative application of our skills and knowledge to solve new and difficult problems – mastering a difficult turn for an ice skater, finding the right phrase for a poet. But when we reach a state of flow, we barely notice the time pass and gain great satisfaction.

How do we create opportunities for sustained thinking and flow in our connected world with the rush of Twitter, status updates on Facebook, hitting receive on emails and the incessant ping ping of messages on our devices? How do break old unproductive habits associated with connection?

Kristin’s solution, via Jack Cheng at the excellent A List Apart, was to think about the habit fields surrounding your work environment:

On the one hand it should be a place of quiet contemplation and flow. On the other hand it is also where we check messages, talk on the phone, pay bills, research on the internet. If you check Twitter first thing in the morning and then regularly during the day, it becomes a habit associated with that space.

Cheng noted that he deleted a certain Twitter client because he would find himself absent-mindedly clicking the shortcut key without realising. I do this regularly when I switch between applications, finding myself on Tweetdeck with no previous intention of viewing it. It has become an instinctive habit, muscle memory.

Cheng now sits in a different chair for Twitter and email, saving his desk for actual work – in his case writing, designing and coding. Physically changing the space has reduced the social media habit field at his desk.

I’m not sure sitting at a different desk, using a different computer,  is really practical for me. But the issue of ‘habit fields’ forming around these heavily used locations really chimes. As I mentioned in the comments of Kristin’s post, I think this is something we’re all struggling to get right. Twitter and whatever’s next are so good at taking us to good things, but the by-product is a Pavlovian response in our reward centres, constant refreshing, scanning and instinctively interacting. I take time out to read books, long articles and papers, and write thoughts, observations and ideas ever day, but I’m going to have to think more about those habit fields.

It definitely puts a different slant on neuroscientist David Eagleman’s prediction in The Guardian that within the next 20 years we’ll be jacking information streams directly into our brains with William Gibson-esque machine interfaces.

I’d like to imagine we’ll have robots to do our bidding. But I predicted that 20 years ago, when I was a sanguine boy leaving Star Wars, and the smartest robot we have now is the Roomba vacuum cleaner. So I won’t be surprised if I’m wrong in another 25 years. Artificial intelligence has proved itself an unexpectedly difficult problem.

Will we have reached the singularity – the point at which computers surpass human intelligence and perhaps give us our comeuppance? We’ll probably be able to plug information streams directly into the cortex for those who want it badly enough to risk the surgery.

That idea of the rewiring our ideas of humanity with sentient computers and the singularity appears to be crystallising.  Tim Flannery’s fascinating interview with Robyn Williams on ABC’s Science Show laid out the Internet, the flow of information around the planet and the increased interdependence of all of us as steps towards the development of a superorganism – he calls it Gaia – and as he describes it, it definitely calls to mind the ant colonies described by entomologist EO Wilson.

It’s a debate that’s picked up a lot of steam. Flannery’s comments were editorialised by Tim Blair in the Daily Telegraph and anonymously in The Australian.

Come on down, Gaia!

Hey, if the big guy can take out Australian citizenship by this morning and hold a cricket bat, we’ve got a job for him at the SCG.

It’s obviously speculative, but there’s a lot more to this than meets the eye – and it really taps into what we’re increasingly understanding about how complex systems work, and how Earth’s system works. Here’s a response from three scientists on the role of what’s increasingly being called Earth Systems Science.

A critical feature of Earth System Science is to recognise that human activities now form a major interactive part of the functioning and evolution of the entire planet. This is a significant departure from the past where humans have been studied separately from the environment around us. We have been regarded as villains impacting the planet’s natural systems, and victims suffering from the way the planet reacts, for example through changing climate.

This new approach means that the natural science of global environmental change must be linked with social science, economics and the humanities, that is, “global environmental change” must become “global change”.

There are real risks when we become so interconnected and tapped into the global flow of data. Personal risks, that stop us from being creative and able to deliver on our promise. Global risks, where crises like the financial meltdown brought on by sub-prime lending can cascade around the world due to our interconnected financial systems. And fundamental challenges to Earth’s inhabitants, like mass extinction of Australia’s biodiversity.

But there’s also the very real chance of good – the ability to understand each other, to have richer, far more fulfilling experiences, to come up with new ideas, to solve some of these big problems. Finding the balance is crucial.

[Reading #7] Changing cities

1. Our cities are getting bigger

It’s clichéd to talk about more people living in cities than not, but it’s a milestone.  The way our cities work is changing too. We used to measure them every handful of years in a census, but increasingly we can keep much closer tabs through real time studies of the flow of people and information. So how does that change things?

(experiments with light by UK photographer/artist Helen Stevenson)

A new Institute For The Future study on the Future of Cities, Information and Inclusion tackles the subject. In this Fast Company piece, writer and urban planner Anthony Townsend’s analysis is measured:

None of these developments are unambiguously good.

Using sensors to track people and change are bound to inspire new ideas and new ways of being communities. It’s easy to be hyperbolic. But it also has the potential to drastically reduce civil liberties – think how networks of closed circuit cameras are increasingly being used, add in the vast change in public information from social networks like Foursquare, and the data troves available through the gov2.0 process.

The IFTF report touches on cloud computing, public interfaces, smart personal devices, broadband connectivity and open data infrastructures. It’s simply presented and asks lots of questions (a good sign) about the tensions. Who wins from smart cities? Who controls the data? Is crowdsourcing just offloading the responsibilities of the government onto the governed? And how do you approach the proliferating digital, economic and knowledge gaps? Lots of good examples. Short, too.

There’s a lot of Jane Jacobs in the thinking – really useful given the usual focus on future smart cities as a kind of wonderful utopia – about inclusion, and that’s something that’s teased out in this review of a series of presentations from the group.

2. Creative class saves cities?

Richard Florida’s concept that creative capital is crucial to a city’s economic success has been taken up with gusto, here he is in the ‘Flight of the Creative Class’:

Concentrations of creative talented people are particularly important for innovation…Ideas flow more freely, are honed more sharply, and can be put into practice more quickly when large numbers of innovators, implementers and financial backers are in constant contact with one another, both in and out of the office.

Bilbao’s success following the construction of Frank Gehry’s beautiful Guggenheim is usually the cited case study, but Thomas Sevcik (MD of Arthesia) knocked it over in a talk at this year’s Art Basel Miami:

Sevcik showed one graph charting the annual arrival of passengers streaming through the Bilbao airport — the “gotcha” part is that the big spike occurred not when the Guggenheim opened, but a few years later, when Europe’s budget airlines, such as Ryan Air and Air Berlin, started flying to Bilbao. Moreover, Spain was already investing in new cultural and business developments that may have contributed to the rise of Bilbao anyway. And what may work in Bilbao may not necessarily present a universal model for civic success.

He took aim at the creative industries, too, as actually being innovation-averse.

Due to chronic under-funding, “once [creative industries] find a formula [of] how they can sell a product – a special type of website or special strategy – they tend then to sell the same thing over and over.” Comparing the culture sector to others such as biotech or the financial industry, Sevcik claimed that the latter is more creative and innovative than the culture industries.

It’s a good reminder. Watch your assumptions. Just because artistically creative people are good at being creative in their discipline doesn’t mean they’re any more creative elsewhere.

3. Great ideas can start prosaic and small

Here’s one. It’s Der Gründungszuschuss, which according to Daily Kos, roughly translates as ‘start up grant’. And that’s basically it, start up grants for the urban poor.

It is a program for the unemployed that gives a monthly amount of seed capital for those on unemployment. The grant is means-tested and is paid on top of unemployment, health and other benefits. For example, a married couple with children can get a grant up to just under $32,000! A single person who is unemployed and has no children can get up to just over $25,000. The benefits are paid out over a period of nine months. After that, there is an extension of benefits called the “building phase” that pays an additional $400 per month for six months.

Some will fail, obviously. But the grants are supported by business classes, business planning mentoring, and ongoing seminars and training. How great.

4. And while we’re on cities

There’s a lot of talk about China’s astronomic urban growth. But sure there may be 20 new cities built there every year, but does anyone live in them?

5. Want more?

Read Write Web’s Best Internet of Things. New York Times’ Year In Ideas, and a 10 year special from NYT on the Best Ideas of a Decade.

How about The Guardian’s new data visualisation channel. Mitchell Whitelaw’s brilliant TEDxCanberra talk on showing everything instead of search. Touchable holograms. And, uhh, a brilliant example of the kind of research you could only really do by crowdsourcing.