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In his formulation on the laws of prediction, Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, memorably wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." One flight above a green grocer in San Francisco's Mission District—a gritty neighborhood that despite the dot-com boom and bust has proven remarkably impervious to change—the eight designers and programmers at Stamen Design are making magic out of data. Their displays of quantitative information for clients such as Trulia, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, Flickr and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have transformed the way we experience data. What was once the province of statistics, charts and graphs has blossomed into work that is aesthetically meaningful, emotionally eloquent and yes, magical.

Nowhere is that magic more evident than on Trulia Hindsight. Created for real estate search company Trulia, the project began when the startup asked Stamen for an approach that would expose the vast amount of real estate data residing in their databanks. As Stamen founder Eric Rodenbeck explains, “They had a ton of data and wanted to show people they had it.”

Just sorting through these massive data sets consumed at least one third of the project. According to Rodenbeck, “We did an initial drive through their data, did a bunch of studies, and eventually interaction designer Tom Carden said, ‘Why don't we aggregate their data over time and put it on a map?’”

Enter the name of a town or city in the U.S. and Trulia Hindsight goes to work, combing through historical tax data, to display the growth of that town over time. As the decades whiz by, colored hot spots bloom on and off the landscape, indicating where houses were built or bought, right down to individual lots and parcels. In Florida, you can watch the inexorable expansion of Miami as it swallows the Everglades. You can also see development come to a complete stop in Bolinas, California, when environmentalists placed a moratorium on new water meters in 1971.

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In the 2004 election cycle, Stamen’s work came to the attention of MoveOn.org, and suddenly Stamen was in business making maps. These maps showed the MoveOn community where they were and what they were doing. During the fledgling Howard Dean campaign, Stamen built interactive maps that functioned as communication tools. A member could log on and see where other MoveOn members were located. Rodenbeck says, “We didn’t just build maps, we built a sense of community.” To handle the load, Stamen set up six servers each capable of handling more than 10,000 simultaneous connections.

“We really had to negotiate with the technology,” Rodenbeck remembers. “We were building stuff from scratch using open-source technology, because it was free, and it was often the only technology capable of handling what we required.

“We had seen Google Maps. They blew the lid off with a tiled approach to making maps on a Web site that was jaw dropping. The problem with maps from Google or MapQuest is that they want to place restrictions on the map, how the data is used or whether you have to display a logo.”

So, under the direction of technical director Michal Migurski, Stamen set out to build its own map-making tool. “Modest Maps came out of our need and desire to have good working tools,” Rodenbeck says. “Stamen exists to make things like Modest Maps. It’s a core reason we want to see our work out in the world.”

Based in Flash, Modest Maps is a client-side interaction library that enables display, zooming and panning across continuous, seemingly infinite planes of visual information. Distributed under an open-source BSD license, Modest Maps is available free to anyone who wants to make interactive maps and roll them out in their own projects.

“We started making maps as one-offs,” Rodenbeck explains. Cabspotting, Stamen’s real-time, GPS-tracking map of Yellow Cabs in San Francisco, which is now in the collection of SFMOMA, was made by hand. “By the time we did the third project, we were able to reuse the code, and we realized this was something others could use.” Modest Maps has been embraced by the open-source community, and used on sites as various as MSNBC, CNN and the Nike skateboarding site designed by Odopod.

Rodenbeck says, “Everything we do are maps. It’s just that some are geographic and some are not. At Stamen the ‘Aha! Moment’ came when we realized we could replace tiles with other stuff, for example a collection of artwork, and design from there.”

It’s not the map we're interested in, it’s the information you put on top of it.”

Just how museums catalog and present their collections is an ongoing problem in information design. Should works be grouped by artist? By time period? By country? By style? Invited by SFMOMA to explore alternatives to traditional search-based presentations of art, Stamen created SFMOMA ArtScope, an interactive, tile-based, view-at-a-glance of 3,500 works of art in the museum's collection.

In an attempt to find an interesting way through the collection, Rodenbeck explains, “We had to decide what was interesting to communicate and balance that against what the museum had the stomach to expose. We wanted to get out of the way of the material and let it shine.”

Instead of diving down the wormhole of endless categorization, Stamen chose simply to show the entire 3,500-piece collection at a glance. The seemingly random organization is actually arranged by time, according to when the pieces were acquired by the museum. It’s a solution breathtaking in its simplicity, and audacious in its information design scheme.

A built-in, rollover viewer brings the microscopically small tiles into focus, permitting further exploration. Because the tiles rendered onscreen are initially too small to distinguish as individual art works, the interface invites serendipity into the equation. Click to zoom, and the tiny tile enlarges, just like zooming into a typical Google Map. A keyword search lets viewers browse more systematically, searching for themes, styles, titles or individual artists.

As they worked through the data, Stamen looked at dominant color, dominant hue, size of the artwork, the date created and the birth date of the artist. Eventually they settled on using the time the artwork was acquired as their central organizing principle. According to Rodenbeck, “Organization by time exposes interesting patterns. By looking at when the work was acquired, you can reveal how the museum builds its collection over time. You can show buying sprees-the dot-com boom in the ’90s was very good for museum collections. And for the viewer, it presents a way to find stuff you’d never see grouped together.”

The first maps were tools for exploration, marking the boundaries of the known world, and pointing the way to the unknown. As maps increasingly represented facts on the ground, they would set the fate of nations, peoples and politics. Eighty years later, we’re experiencing the bloody aftermath of the cartographer’s art in defining modern day Iraq, a country that was literally drawn into being following the British conquest of the Ottoman Empire.

Everything we do are maps. It’s just that some are geographic and some are not. At Stamen the ‘Aha! Moment’ came when we realized we could replace tiles with other stuff, for example a collection of artwork, and design from there.”

Today, we demand more prosaic benefits from our maps. Getting us from point A to point B has become a billion dollar business for companies like Google, MapQuest, Navitech and TomTom. In the process, the maps on our screens and the ones in our glove box have lulled us into a false sense of credulity.

“We expect maps to be a direct reflection of the world,” Rodenbeck says, “and they clearly are not. They are a direct representation of data.” What sets Stamen apart as a design studio is its refusal to accept the status quo when it comes to facts on the ground. “It’s not the map we're interested in,” Rodenbeck explains, “it’s the information you put on top of it.” For example, he points out that a map of murders in San Francisco looks exactly like a map of birthday parties.

He should know. In 2008 Migurski began scouring publicly available records from the city of Oakland, California’s police department, taking its crime report and throwing it on a map of Oakland. The result showed an almost up-to-the minute display of the type of crime, when it was committed and where. After two weeks the Oakland police department discovered someone was data scraping their servers, and they closed the feed. Three months later, not only was the site back up and running, the Oakland it department now delivers daily crime reports to Stamen.

Data. Run it through a computer and you get a numerical model. Spreadsheet it in Excel and you get a graph. Put it in the hands of Stamen and you get data visualization techniques that can be as eloquent and expressive as film.

Ben Cerveny, a strategic advisor to Stamen, talks about taking on work that “raises the literacy level of data visualization so we can work with connoisseurs.” For Stamen that means a design philosophy dedicated “to doing the next most obvious thing,” explains Rodenbeck. “When we did Cabspotting, we took a geofeed from all the Yellow Cabs in San Francisco. The obvious thing would have been to plot them on a Google Map. The next most obvious thing is to plot their pathways with no map.” Done that way, the cabs themselves create the map as their GPS traces reveal their routes across the city streets.

“The world is more interesting than what we can ‘design,’” Rodenbeck says. “Stamen just has to back off, sit back and let the work shine.” The result, in projects like Cabspotting, Trulia Hindsight and Flickr Clock, is information that moves, breathes and lets the world tell its own story, one data point at a time. ca

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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