Thursday, March 12, 2009

When 7 Eats 9

The quote on UCLA statistician Nathan Yau's blog,, is from a 1977 book by American statistician John W. Tukey, and reads: The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see.

Yau should know. His Web-powered data visualizations make dry-as-dirt statistics spring to life with new meaning. Yau's purpose is radical: to give today's policymakers [and you and me] a new, big dose of reality about the world. From global poverty rates to the time we waste in our daily lives, Yau is fascinated by it all.

"Data are much more than a bucket of numbers," says Yau, whose credits include a stint in the information graphics department of The New York Times. "There are stories in that bucket."

Yau's best-known data visualization so far shows the "viral" growth of Walmart across America. Another of his visualizations tracked the Twitter activity as Barack Obama became the 44th President, and Yau also has been working to make sense of the United Nations' 66 million records with his UNdata project, a series of graphical displays of global economic statistics. For the UN, Yau helped to create Progress: A Graphical Report on the State of the World.]

But now Yau is getting personal. This week, he released his latest project, your.flowingdata—a way for people to track their own data and interact with it. Is there a series of events that make you happy or sad? Yau wants to help you identify what those are, track them, and—ultimately—replicate or avoid them. "There are complex relationships going on between our everyday behaviors," Yau says. "I want YFD to help people gain a better understanding of those relationships so as to improve their quality of life."

How does it work? For now, Yau has built a Twitter interface. You login your data—like what you ate, how long you slept last night, how much you weighed this morning—and send it to @yfd in direct messages via Twitter, using specified keywords: tweet "gnite" when you go to sleep, for example, and "gmorning" when you awake, and keep track of your food intake with "ate chicken" or "drank beer." To find patterns in your behavior over time, login to YFD with your Twitter user name and Yau will plot it all in an easy-to-read personal statistics reader.

Yau is the first to acknowledge that personal data-tracking is, at least for now, still a bit "geeky." But as science and design continue to morph, he predicts, Web-powered self-monitoring will go mainstream.

YFD stems from Yau's current gig as a statistician for the urban sensing group at the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS) at UCLA, a group of brainiacs developing PEIR, the Personal Environmental Impact Report. Yau describes PEIR as "an online tool that allows you to use your mobile phone to explore and share how you impact the environment and how the environment impacts you." PEIR is all part of the new movement in location-based intelligence-gathering called participatory sensing. Check out this video on how PEIR works:

For an interview with Yau on his work, click on this recent piece that appeared in Fnewsmagazine.

Yau, of course, is not the first Web visualization whiz: Like Jonathan Harris before him, Yau was inspired by Hans Rosling, the 60-year-old grandfather of the dynamic data movement, whose dramatic visualizations at the 2006 TED festival clearly illustrate how Web 2.0 technologies can help us to "see" in numbers radical new "facts" about the world—in an effort to improve it and help solve social problems.

For other visualization data, check out this recent post by Yau, 17 Ways to Visualize the Twitter Universe. Also check out this one, from, about the financial crisis. Here's yet another, about the flow of immigration into the United States:

Immigration to the US, 1820-2007 v2 from Ian Stevenson on Vimeo.

(Illustration, Number Head, by Miroslaw Pieprzyk)

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