Q&A With Mahir Yavuz

Q&A With Mahir Yavuz

Welcome to our ongoing Q&A series, where we're introducing you to some of the designers behind the work you see at Visualizing.org. Join the conversation in the comments below!

Mahir M. Yavuz (#mahirmyavuz) is a visualization artist who lives and works in New York. He is currently engaged in doctoral studies in Interface Culture at Kunstuniversität Linz, Austria. Besides giving lectures at the same university, he is also an external researcher for Ars Electronica Futurelab. His works have been exhibited internationally at several institutions and venues including the Siggraph, Ars Electronica Festival, ISEA, and CIANT.

V: How and when did you get started in data visualization?

MY: I started researching data visualization around 2003. Back then I was just graduating from university in Istanbul, where I received my BA degree in Visual Communication Design. I was inspired by early works in the field of information graphics by William Playfair, Charles Minard, Otto Neurath and Jacques Bertin. I was reading Tufte’s books like many other young scholars in the field. Since I was working on the Internet all the time, it was obvious to me that the amount of data being produced was increasing rapidly and that we would need innovative and complex visual presentations to display all the data that we were producing. Following a couple of small projects, I realized my first big data visualization work in 2007, entitled Newsknitter, which was exhibited in the Ars Electronica Festival that same year. I was very excited by coding interactive software and generating print works for different datasets. However in Newsknitter, we used a different medium to display the data: knitted garments. The project was very well received by the public; it was published on several blogs and websites in a very short span of time. This was perhaps the actual beginning for me in terms of producing data visualization projects. Since then I have been involved with several professional and personal data visualization projects in various media, printed posters, interactive displays, multi touch tables, media façades, etc. Some of the works I produced can be found on http://casualdata.com/.

V: Tell us about your Sense of Patterns project: what were the challenges and how did you overcome them?

MY: Sense of Patterns started with an idea related to my PhD topic: focusing on patterns in individual movements through city space. While I was researching the subject, I received an invitation to the exhibition Sensing Place/Placing Sense which was curated by Dietmar Offenhuber and Katja Schechtner for the Ars Electronica 2011 Festival. With their help, I received two different datasets from the Austrian Institute of Technology. The first dataset was taxi trips in Vienna in a single day; the second was the GPS dataset of four different commuters in the Vienna region for five weeks. The task was simple: coming up with something meaningful and interesting with these datasets. However, the challenge was the amount of the data (both datasets consisted hundreds of thousands of single entries) and finding a good way to map the data. There were some similar projects realized in the field before and I had to find my own way to display the data. At the end, I wanted to focus on the relationship between time and space and I decided that it is not possible to show everything in one single piece. Therefore, I created a series of printed posters. In addition to the posters, I produced an animation which shows the visualization algorithm execution that produced the graphics. Because of the high density of the data, I wanted to keep everything clean and minimal. I paid a lot of attention to the use of color and typography and in the end there were almost no additional design elements to create the final work except the data itself, which I believe is the best way to make visualizations.

V: What's the most exciting development that's happened in the field in the past year?

MY: I think there are a number of important things happened in the field. Open data movements have grown and new datasets are being released by governments. This is very important for researchers because data visualization is a field that requires good datasets and it is very hard to produce without some sort of collaboration or public support. Also, we now have the biggest official set of cables available online by WikiLeaks. I believe we need more time and research to understand and analyze all this data in different ways. On the other hand, acknowledgement of the field by the public has also increased in last two to three years. Now, the New York Times has a visualization team, Columbia University has a Digital Journalism study -- there are many online communities and foundations in the field including Visualizing.org. The number of significant works published has increased greatly as well. All these developments are very positive and exciting for the future.

V: Where do you see data visualization heading in the next couple of years?

MY: I think it is directed in different ways: the most visible one is that visualization is becoming more and more mainstream and commercial. Big agencies and brands are publishing more work with information graphics every single day. It is also not a coincidence that some startup companies received considerable amounts of investment in such short times. However this mainstream movement, especially based on infographics more than visualizations, is most likely a trend in marketing. I rarely see good infographics that reveal their content with appropriate visuals.

I also expect to see a change in the production of datasets. New sensors in public spaces, new wearables, smart phones, etc. these will all be collecting data every moment -- they already do. And because everybody is more aware of the importance and value of data now, in the near future we will see that datasets produced by corporations and people are better organized and standardized.

Furthermore, I expect to see more artists using data to produce meaningful visualizations in different media. We should expect to see smart visualizations in daily life and in public spaces. In my opinion, media façades/media architecture and mobile device interfaces will benefit from more visualizations.

V: What is one visualization or data set you've always wanted to tackle but haven't yet had the time?

MY: I would really like to work on rare datasets, especially the ones related to developing countries. It is usually very hard to find an organized dataset for these regions, but I believe there is a big potential in terms of coming up with more interesting visualizations on these places, cultures and people. One good source concerning political data related to developing countries would be the WikiLeaks archive. It is huge and very well organized; I may start working on that with a special focus. Additionally, I want to continue my visualization research on patterns of movements in public space. For this, I am planning to produce my own "sensors" and my own data to come up with original results. Data of public transportation, tracking web cameras, and location based information from social networks might be a good start but I am also thinking of finding ways to produce personal data easily. These are some of the things I am planning to work in the near future. And I should also mention that I am always open for collaborations!

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