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A Dozen Questions for Mr Suda

(optional.is) [Extreme Detail]

Brian Suda is an informatician, speaker and author with a passion for data. He lives and works in Reykjavik.

His book Designing with Data was the third to be published on noted independent publisher Five Simple Steps. “A journey through the basics [of] producing beautiful looking, accurate representations of data,” it is well worth investing in for its comprehensive overview of data visualisations and its words of wisdom on designing with data to tell meaningful and captivating stories.

Mr Suda is also a behind-the-scenes force to be reckoned with at 24 Ways where he occupies the role of co-editor with Drew McLellan and, most recently, assisted with the production of the The 24 Ways Annual.

Drawing from his study in informatics his interests are varied, encompassing cartography, chromatics and community (to name, but three). All are drawn from the ‘good portion of each day’ he spends connected to the internet. He writes in longform about these varied interests at (optional.is), a site which we’d wholeheartedly encourage you to bookmark.

We asked Mr Suda a dozen questions.

Designing with Data [Extreme Detail]

Where did you learn your craft?

Honestly, I’m not really sure what my craft is any more. I am a classically trained computer scientist.

I pursued undergraduate studies at Parks College of Aviation, Saint Louis University. At the time we were still learning to program in C and were taught all about waterfall and just in time methodologies. On graduating, I went to the University of Edinburgh and undertook a Masters in Informatics. There we did everything in Java and my thesis was about SOAP web-services.

Needless to say, what I do on a daily basis I didn’t learn in school. School was a great foundation for learning to organise your life and how to learn, so I am glad for my experiences, but the vast majority of what I do on a daily basis comes from the plenty of times I did it wrong!

Who inspires you?

Hmmm… Maybe less about who specifically and more about what. Right now I am very much interested in the concept of ‘Idleness’. I’m reading Bertrand Russell’s book In Praise of Idleness and the ancient Japanese book Essays in Idleness. I think in the next year, more of my work will revolve less around real-time, instant-gratification and instead a more relaxed, idle approach.

What are your influences?

Pretty much everything. I try to take it all in and filter it as needed. I peruse FFFFOUND! frequently for inspiration. I have hundreds of RSS feeds, but only 50% or so are technology-focused, the rest are interesting sites here and there.

My biggest influence at the moment is probably The Long Now Foundation. They’re thinking in the very long term, something that few in the technology industry seem to be doing - maybe because they’re chasing the money or because bits are relatively cheap. How many devices have you binned in the last ten years because the next version got shinier? (Cf. Last Year’s Model.) Designing a device that will last for 10,000 years makes you think about so many aspects you didn’t before, the technology, the materials, governments, political turmoil… it runs the full gamut.

Belt Charts [Detail]

You describe yourself as an informatician. This may be a new term to some, what does an informatician do?

My studies were in informatics, it’s a blend of several different disciplines which study how natural and engineered computational systems interact and behave. When your degree is in informatics, you need an equivalent job title. The study of mathematics creates mathematicians, ergo informatics begets informaticians.

Informatics has roots in computer science, cognitive science and artificial intelligence, but has spread to more disciplines including biology, psychology and mathematics. The concept now acts as a bridge bringing more cross-disciplinary interaction in science, but try putting that on your business cards! Having a single word for this concept created a Whorfianism that allows people to talk about a much more abstract concept in a single word. We saw something similar with the term AJAX.

As recently reported in The Guardian, Tim Berners-Lee believes analysing data is the future for journalism. How do we equip a future generation - of both journalists and beyond - with these skills?

A strong understanding of statistics and storytelling are key. A good journalist already knows what angle they want to write about, they’re great at teasing out facts and information. The next generation of data journalists will need the liberal arts skills to tell the story, but will need to extend their skill set to learn how to extract ‘loose’, unstructured data.

An investigative journalist already knows how to file Freedom of Information Requests, how and where to dig-up leads, facts and information from analogue sources. They will need to extend those skills into the digital realm and learn about things like regular expressions, cleaning and scrubbing data, and be familiar with off-the-shelf tools to visualise large data sets to see the ‘shape’ of the story.

We’ve noticed you format your dates, as follows: Monday, December 13th, 02010 at 13:31 UTC. Why the leading zero on the year? Enlighten us.

The long now organisation is building a clock that will take 10,000 years to make one revolution. To help promote the idea they are prefixing all their dates with a leading zero. It reminds us that it isn’t the 11th year in 2000, it is the 2011th year in 10,000! I think it’s a great idea.

We all worried about Y2K and the 2 to 4 digit roll-over issues with ‘99 becoming 0 rather than 2000. Well, we’re going to have the same problem in the year 9999 to 0 instead of 10,000. By prefixing things with a leading zero it forces you to think to yourself, “that’s weird,” then think about things in a longer term manner.

You’ve written: “Maps are historically one of the most important and politically charged objects mankind has created.” 1 Considering your interest in cartography, what’s your favourite map, and why?

Maps are still one of the many items that are confiscated when travelling between some countries. Google is serving different maps in different regions where lands are still contested. Maps are powerful political tools.

My favourite map at the moment is an old Chinese map, Along the River During the Qingming Festival (above), a panoramic painting generally attributed to the Song Dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145).

It’s my current favourite because of the distortion. It isn’t a geograpghically correct map, I’m sure the river is winding back and forth all over the countryside, but here it is stretched out into a long linear format. Which is perfect, because if you are on the boat you don’t have much of a choice as to which way to travel, you only care about what points of interest you pass, how far there is between them and on which bank they will appear. It is perfectly executed for the task at hand.

There is a great deal of discussion about the importance of information design as an integral part of the design process. Given this emphasis, why do we still suffer carbuncles like, for example, ill-considered boarding passes?

I wish I knew the answer, then we could fix it.

My guess is that one of two extremes occurs: The bigger the company the more people need to sign-off, it goes through committee and gets so poorly watered down, or people are afraid to take risks, that you end-up with the lowest common denominator. (Like the old adage, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM,” no one gets fired for making Excel charts). Or conversely: Companies are so big that no one cares and really important activities and decisions fall through the cracks because over-worked people don’t feel it’s important or it isn’t their discipline or area of expertise in the first place. They are too worried about their job today that they aren’t thinking end-user experience of tomorrow.

Data visualisation is in essence storytelling. Is it possible, or even desirable, to maintain a semblance of objectivity when engaged in this endeavour?

In my younger days I thought facts were facts, how could they not be neutral, but the more I work with data I realise that it’s probably impossible to not be biased.

You can try as hard as you might to present the information in a neutral way, but you always have your own personal biases such as age, gender, race, upbringing, which bleed into your opinions. This doesn’t even get to the issues of the information you don’t show. Sure, the line graph might be full of facts, but you’re conveniently omitting other facts which can change the opinion.

What is missing is almost more important than what is present.

World Cup 2010

What’s your favourite typeface?

I enjoy Futura at the moment, but my allegiances are fickle.

What’s your favourite plain text editor?

For code, I’m using TextMate, but for more focused writing I’m using OmmWriter - very Zen.

What’s your favourite tea?

I’m not picky. I am more a fan of tea flavoured milk.

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