Freud in the bedroom and fleshy-colored nouns

Dozens of blue semicircles of varying sizes meander across a horizontal axis, some repeating in a uniformly-sized arc again and again, while others hop along at random intervals and at random sizes. This, Martin Wattenberg asserts, is the shape of Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” The arcs connect repeating sections of the musical score to convey the overall structure, or shape, of the song. Wattenberg displays the shapes of several songs, from the folk song “Clementine” to John Coltrane.

Wattenberg’s investigation into the shape of song is part of his overall mission to make the invisible visible. He explained the thought processes and engineering behind some of his most interesting projects in his lecture “Revelatory Interfaces,” presented in the comfortably crowded McConomy Auditorium last Tuesday. His Shape of Sound project uses a computer to detect repetition in musical scores and draw the corresponding arcs. “One of my favorite types of music to look at is jazz,” Wattenberg said. “It begins with a series of repetitions and then it takes off and often baffles the computer.”

Wattenberg translates complex social data into images. His images have been exhibited at the London Institute of Contemporary Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, among others. The images are beautiful and artistic, but they are also designed to relay information about our culture. Wattenberg’s visualizations provide everyday people with new toys to play with, new tools for investigation, and new ways of understanding.

Wattenberg studied mathematics at Brown and Stanford, and earned his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. He uses algorithms to analyze data and create visualizations, and is currently working as a researcher at IBM in Boston. “In all sorts of ways we’re bombarded with information; it’s just not organized well,” Wattenberg said. The visual presentation of information in both an accessible and beautiful format is what makes his work so innovative and unique. Wattenberg’s extensive work in information visualization has made him “one of the world’s 100 top young innovators,” according to Technology Review.

After demonstrating the shape of sound, Wattenberg goes on to present his history flow visualization. With history flow, Wattenberg sought to explain the success of websites like Wikipedia that provide articles written and edited by the online community. “Anyone can edit it, and yet it is still very good in the sense that thousands of student papers have been written with it,” he remarked. He analyzed the histories of every revision made to any given Wikipedia article by creating a visualization.

The history flow visual presents a horizontal axis measuring time and a vertical axis measuring the length of the article. A different color represents each author of the article. “By using visual analysis, you get a sense of what’s going on underneath,” Wattenberg explained. Simply looking at the patterns made by the colors as they spread across both axes reveals how much each author has contributed, who has changed what, even when controversial articles have been completely deleted. The visualization solved the mystery of Wikipedia’s success: the incredible reaction speed of the online community. When articles are vandalized or deleted, the “median is 10 minutes” before someone corrects the problem, according to Wattenberg.

Wattenberg worked in conjunction with Marek Walczak on another project called Apartment. Wattenberg said the concept focused on “building a city of words and memories.” Users can access Apartment on the Internet. “You are confronted by a blinking cursor and you just type. You could type memories. You could type junk. You could create anything and it will gradually create a building for you,” Wattenberg explained. Different words that you type in will create and gravitate towards different rooms in the apartment. “We classified by hand what room each word belonged in,” Wattenberg said. He demonstrated several of his favorite apartments, one of which has the word “ego” circling around the dining room while “id” stays frozen in the closet and “Freud” bounces around the bedroom.

Wattenberg went on to demonstrate his ambitious color code—a categorization of language designed as a joint project between himself and Jonathan Feinberg. “Is there a way to think of the color of a word?” Wattenberg asked. “I wanted to create a map of the entire English language.” The map gives a color for more than 33,000 English nouns. The color shown for the nouns on the map is an average of all the pixel colors produced by a Yahoo! image search for the given noun. The resulting color code has “a fleshy color to it,” Wattenberg said. He explained that this is because “people are really important,” and thus, our words resemble us.

Siobhan Hadley, a second-year graduate student studying communication planning and information design, was very impressed with Wattenberg’s work. “It’s creative and it’s original in the sense that you wouldn’t ever think to apply certain visualizations. For music, you know it would look like this on a page or sound like this in a concert, but this puts it in a completely new form.”