Stephen Baker

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Stamen Design: Illustrating the physics of information

February 4, 2010journalism

Ben Cerveny of Stamen Designs was speaking before me at the Webtrends Engageconference yesterday. Stamen, an eight-person shop in San Francisco, produces fascinating and provocative visuals from big data sets. He showed data of everything from real estate to news as squiggling, morphing blobs and lines. Sometimes it looked like cell biology, but Cerveny pointed to another science. He said Stamen was looking for rule sets for the "physics of information."

That idea has been batted around for a while. Last year I read The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, by Tor Norretranders. He went into great length about information and the second law of thermodynamics. The idea is that information, like heat, tends naturally toward entropy. It loses its structure and disperses. It starts to look more like the general stream on Twitter and less like The New York Times. And the job of journalists or algorithm writers is to use intelligence to bring order to the information. In that sense, we do the work of the Maxwell's Demon. That's a fictitous character thought up by James Maxwell who has the intelligence (and dexterity) to separate fast- and slow-moving molecules, and thus create "free" energy (and counteract entropy). The question, of course, is whether the energy gained by separating the molecules would compensate for the energy spent in separating them. Somewhere in there is the value of information.

Anyway, Stamen does cool work. The photo above is from Trulia, a company that has a vast data base of real estate transactions through U.S. history. You can click on a neighborhood and see the development patterns. I like the one of Miami Beach. They also do lots of work with Digg, the crowdsourced news aggregator. Check out Digg Labs. You can even turn the swarm, which shows the sprouting and clustering of news items in their community, as a desktop screen saver. (I'd be tempted, but wonder (thinking back to Maxwell's Demon, how much energy it would gobble.)

This reminds me. One morning I was breakfasting in Palo Alto and wearing a shirt I picked up in Madison: Wisconsin Physics. One smart aleck stopped by my table, pointed to my shirt, and said: Wisconin physics? Do they have different laws of thermodynamics there?

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