the color of data


The Art Of Reproduction

The web can seem like the perfect museum, holding all the world’s art. Type “Danae Klimt” into your favorite search engine, and you conjure up a high-resolution image of Gustav Klimt’s Danaë: tan limbs, a shower of gold, red hair.

Or did you find pink limbs? Or were they gray or even green? There’s the rub: the seemingly perfect museum holds dozens of Danaës—with dozens of different palettes. Even the shape changes as reproductions are subtly cropped.

Curious just how far reproductions stray from each other, we began an investigation. (Go directly to the results if you like.) For a set of famous artworks, we downloaded all the plausible copies we could find. Then we wrote software to reconstruct each artwork as a mosaic, a patchwork quilt where each patch comes from an individual copy. Here’s the mosaic for Danaë:

26 Danaes

The discontinuities of color, texture and frame tell the story of the inaccuracies in reproduction, forming a tapestry of beautiful half-truths.

For some works, we also created compositions comparing the same detail across many copies. The image below shows nine views of the sparks in Whistler’s Nocturne In Black And Gold. In reproduction, it could just as well be a nocturne in blue and brown, or green and yellow.

Detail from Nocturne In Black And Gold

Go to our gallery to see all the compositions.

May 11, 2011   No Comments

That was fast!

It seems like just yesterday (or two blog posts ago) that we announced the beginning of Flowing Media.

But today we are bidding the company adieu. Google managed to snatch us away from Flowing Media with their amazing playground of data to be visualized. (The free food was only a secondary consideration, honest.)

It’s been a wonderful, though short, ride at Flowing Media. We hope that our recent TimeFlow analytical timeline project will be a lasting contribution of the fleeting company.

Right now we’re at orientation in Mountain View, becoming, as they say, more “googley.” In the months to come we’ll be starting a visualization group in Google’s office in Cambridge, MA. We’re very excited about the possibilities!

Stay tuned. :)

August 5, 2010   21 Comments

A timeline takes its first steps

We are excited to announce the alpha release of TimeFlow: an open-source analytical timeline for reporters. This is a project we’ve been working on with Sarah Cohen, a Knight professor at Duke University and former reporter at the Washington Post.

The motivation behind TimeFlow comes from Sarah’s realization that visual analytical tools for reporters are rare. There are good visual presentation tools out there, but those that allow journalists to mull over hundreds and thousands of data points, slicing and dicing the information as they go along are harder to come by. Given this mandate, we set out to rethink timelines,
striving to always show as much textual detail about the data as possible (a goal dear to reporters that, interestingly, goes against the visualization impulse to always aggregate).

TimeFlow offers five different viewing options: timeline, calendar, bar chart, table and list. There is also considerable flexibility in filtering values, combining filters, and re-arranging points on the screen.

TimeFlow is a Java desktop application. Read more and download the files at the TimeFlow home page.

Give it a spin and let us know what you think!

Also, if you’re interested in contributing to the future development of the tool, we welcome help in that front too!

July 29, 2010   5 Comments

A New Chapter

We’re excited to announce the beginning of a new chapter, and a new company.

Our freshly incorporated venture is called Flowing Media, Inc., and will focus on visualization aimed at consumers and mass audiences. For now it’s just the two of us, and we’ll be offering design, strategy, and development services. Our world headquarters are located in Cambridge, MA.

We’ll miss the brilliant and energetic people at our former lab at IBM, and are deeply proud of the work we did there. And luckily, it’s not a true goodbye, since we have an arrangement in the works to continue joint research with our colleagues.

We’ll keep you posted as our plans develop. And meanwhile, if you know of anyone who has interesting data and would like help bringing it to life, spread the word. Our new web site is taking shape at

April 8, 2010   6 Comments

A celebration of color

Today we pay homage to fashion designers and photographers, those who compose rousing images of light and color that fill the pages of glossy magazines. luscious is our attempt to distill their visions into abstract compositions.

To create the images in luscious, we began with a series of magazine advertisements for luxury brands. We then used a custom algorithm designed to extract “peak” colors from any picture (much like our Wired anniversary piece). A random arrangement of concentric circles fills the plane, representing the essential colors of each region. The resulting image hides context and representation and lets the viewer concentrate on pure color.

The two images below illustrate the process: at left the original, at right the transformed version.

Holland America Line, before and after

Valentino, before and after

In the luscious gallery, we see Valentino dabbing a splash of his classic rosso, Armani presenting stark blues and blacks, and Bottega Veneta rejoicing in the warm tones of skin and leather. By abstracting away content, we can focus on the color play that sets the tone of these advertisements: the excited reds, the sober grays, and the occasional dash of yellow to brighten up the darkest blues.

Camel advertisement in color

Unlike some of our previous work, we don’t view this piece as “data visualization.” It aims to reveal not data, but color and mood.

February 7, 2010   5 Comments

The Web Seer

Is there a way to visualize people’s innermost thoughts? Google Suggest lets you see what others are asking when they search the web. From the existential to the mundane, the questions form a portrait of human curiosity. (Read our article in the New York Times, or try it live now.)


Take the phrase “Why doesn’t he…” To make it easy to see Google’s suggestions, we’ve created a diagram where the size of arrows and words show how many pages on the web answer each question. (In these diagrams, the arrow thicknesses show the number of web pages for each question.)

Even more revealing is the comparison between what he doesn’t do, and what she doesn’t. Our diagram puts the two lists side by side.

Family issues run deep, and sex differences loom large:

Sometimes the result is simply sad.

What about star-gazing?

The diagrams above show that if there’s one common question for the famous, it’s not about money or cosmetic surgery. It’s whether they’re Jewish.


Some questions are metaphysical:

Sometimes questions can be philosophical, with an edge:

And others unexpected:

What about practical advice?

(For all we know, a dozen hedge funds are using Google to play the market.)
Finally, what does Google say about politics? Well, some of us are confused:

But there is a bipartisan consensus on one thing: The other side is wrong.

Give it a spin!

December 23, 2009   13 Comments