How you can visualise data with an MIT research budget – wow

If you can stop him talking about his kids, he can be quite interesting.

Thanks to Dutch social media expert Jaap den Dulk (twitter: @dulk) for the link to this talk from MIT Media Lab researcher Deb Roy earlier in 2011. Jaap gave a talk this morning as part of the ICG webinar on social media. This is worth looking at for several reasons but the main one is some very cool visualisation of data, bringing media, location, time and words into one dynamic yet easy to look at model. At times it’s really quite breath-taking (look at it 12:25 in, for example).

Surely we’ll be seeing a lot more of this kind of thing in the next few years, once more companies can afford to generate it. It’s 20 minutes or so, so if you only have time to look at a couple of interesting bits, read on, I’ll highlight a few time codes here.

You could probably trace his movements around the house using 19th Century photographic methods

At 8:50 there’s a nice sequence on visualising both movement around the house – the snail trails I’ve seen used plenty before – and mapping words and phrases uses in different locations, which was new to me. The snail trail / movement footprint footage was nice to look at in its own right, but the combining of that movement with the audio-recorded data on language was really impressive. Roy builds topographical maps, for example, of where the word ‘water’ is uttered. You can see how brand owners could use this to visualise, for example, how people talk about their brands and product areas in different parts of the house.

The next bit of visual pyrotechnics trumped that. At 12:25, he shows a superb graphic of social media feeds relating to tv programmes being sifted for relevant information and connections being made between this data and the tv audience, the “event structures” of the broadcasts themselves and the physical geography of where everyone is.

Frink: a brilliant man, pushing the boundaries of science into lunacy

The other remarkable thing about Roy’s film here isn’t so much about social media as ethnography. When someone gets on stage, starts talking about his baby, then shows a complex slide and says “Here’s a map of every word my son learnt, in chronological order …”, your heart sinks. Lunatic cognitive scientist on the loose with too much time and money. It soon leaps up again though as you start to get your head around what he’s done. And what he’s done is a very cool bit – no, chunk – no, mammoth lump – of ethnography.

He put cameras in the ceiling all around his own house and filmed everything (with a few exceptions … calm down there, Larry Flynt) for more than five years, as a massive experiment for MIT. He’s also audio-recorded everything. One of the highlights to look at in the film, or listen for really, is at 4:50. He’s done the audio equivalent of time-lapse photography on his baby’s attempts to say the word “water”, right from gaga, to a clear pronunciation of “water” (albeit with an American accent – you can’t have everything). To do this he edited 6 months of audio footage into 40 seconds. It’s an audio treat, if you can avoid throwing up at his beaming parental pride (just close your eyes, as he does).

It’s a gargantuan bit of work that can rarely be even thought about in the commercial world of limited budgets and tight objectives. But he’s able to show, as he puts it, “new social structures and dynamics that have previously not been seen.”

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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