I’m Reuben Stanton. This is an intermittent blog of relatively random things: thoughts about technology, reflections on my life and work, and some historical stuff.

My ‘real’ website is here, and I tweet intermittently @absent

Monthly Archives: February 2014

A change in content direction (again)

Another blog post about my blog

I’ve realised (and have been told) that the more I post on this blog regarding my PhD study, the more incoherent and confusing this blog becomes. I need to document my PhD research somewhere, but this blog doesn’t seem to be the place: blog posts are too closely tied to the moment, too personal, too structured around text; and this blog in particular was never set up to be an academic repository of any kind. I feel too constrained by the blogging structure to put up ‘unfinished’ ideas here, and an ‘academic’ style of writing is odd when placed in relation to some of the other contents on here.

To address this issue, I’ve set up a dedicated site specific to documenting my research: http://phd.absentdesign.com. There is not much here at the moment (it is still very much a work in progress), but from now on it will be the go-to place for anything related to my research work.

This blog will now return to being a personal exercise: not so serious, more shorter thoughts and reactions, more of what’s going on with Absent Design and my other software venture, Paper Giant. More blogging.

Small multiples

I’ve seen quite a few examples of the genre of work in the video above (though this is a particularly good one: do watch it to the end). Oddly, I happened to watch it just before reading the following passage on “small multiples” in Envisioning Information:  

At the heart of quantitative reasoning is a single question: Compared to what? Small multiple designs, multivariate and data bountiful, answer directly by visually enforcing comparisons of changes, of the differences among objects, of the scope of alternatives. For a wide range of problems in data presentation, small multiples are the best design solution. 1

Last time I read Tufte extensively was in the context of doing information design work for the ACID/ABC Pool project. Today it is in the context of thinking about how people make sense of information in the context of digital video archives. I’ve been thinking for a while that one of the powerful aspects of the digital video archive is that it can allow multiple visual comparison in a way that physical archives can’t due to the limitations of analogue technology. “Small multiples” is definitely something I want to explore in more depth in the next stage of my PhD research.

  1. Tufte, E.R., 1990. Envisioning Information, Graphics Press. 67 

Rapid prototyping in the real world

Yesterday I had a quick play around with VéritéCo’s Timeline JS. It’s a great little open source JavaScript library for creating “beautifully crafted timelines that are easy, and intuitive to use”. It is primarily built to load content from various online services like YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and the like; but because it is open source JS I was able to hack it to get it working with the Living Archive prototype. 

One nice thing about working with a collection of performance videos: every performance — and subsequently every video — has a date. The performance, and the shooting of the video, happened at a particular time. And, luckily for us, we have most of that information in our data set.

So: having time/date data accessible, and having some open source code to work with, means that it was relatively trivial 1  to take a set of search results like this:  

0 ss1

And display them like this:

0 ss2

(The Circus Oz Living Archive is in closed alpha at the moment, so I can’t link to a working demo, but I hope you get the idea). 

I was talking to Adrian the other day about the flow and direction of the project, especially the challenges of deciding what to focus my development energy on. He noted that in the environment in which we are researching (online archives, digital video, digital storytelling etc), the rate of change is so fast that we can’t possibly compete on a technical level with commercial organisations devoted to these things. And my PhD is not even about technology per se: I’m not trying to come up with some advanced or innovative technology, and I don’t see that we have that capacity in the project team. Drawing lines between commercial work, commercial research, and (what Adrian has called) ‘research research’ is a constant struggle in the project.

In that context, what I like about using a ‘live’ prototyping technique is that it utilises existing, free, technical solutions (we’ve been doing this all along:  Kaltura, Twitter Bootstrap, and now Timeline),  which means that we don’t have to do a huge amount of technical work in order to answer a “what if you could…?” question: 

Q: What if you could view search results in a time-based interface?

A: Here, try this.

I would argue that a live working prototype (using real code, in a real environment) takes us much closer to an answer than any kind of static design, paper prototype, or prototype that uses a ‘test’ data set. What I’ve built with Timeline JS is certainly not the only answer to this question. It’s probably not the best solution. In fact — and here is where my thoughts start to get convoluted — maybe it’s not an answer at all. Maybe the prototype is really a tool to help us ask better questions

What I’m getting at is something about the importance of prototyping in real (not idealised) situations, and the fact that designing ‘in the real world’ throws up questions as well as answers. It’s a bit of an incoherent thought for now 2, but there is something in there that could give me a new perspective on my PhD work so far, and a clearer idea of what I’ll be working on for the remainder of the year.

  1. It took around 3 hours to get it all working. For the technical amongst you: I had to modify the source code to always parse the data as an “image” type because Kaltura serves thumbnails without file extensions; I added some extra JSON properties to show video time and type data, and I also made some minor interface changes. The time also involved writing in PHP (a language with which I’m pretty unfamiliar) to get the search results in the correct JSON format.  
  2. It’s actually been a real struggle for me to write this blog post: I seem to only want to blog about That Which I Am Certain. More on this later.