June 16, 2007

New Profession Unfolding In Beauty and Geekery

A week or more ago I ran across the incredible video of Blaise Aguera y Arcas presentation of Photosynth and Seadragon at TEDTalks 2007. The video is stunning work of Seadragon and Photosynth bringing a collection of images to life from one or more resources.

While the video and ideas behind the tools are incredible displays of where we are today with technology and where we are heading, this caused some ideas I have been trying to get to gel to finally come together. In this video Blaise states (my own transcription):

So what the point here really is, is we can do things with the social environment taking data from everybody, from the entire collective memory of what the earth looks like, and link all of that together and make something emergent that is greater than the sum of the parts. You have a model that emerges of the entire earth, think of it as the long tail to Stephen Lawlers Virtual Earth work. This is something that grows in complexity as people use it and whose benefits become greater to the users as they use it. Their own photos are getting tagged with metadata that somebody else entered. If somebody bothered to tag all of these saints and say who they all are, then my photo of the Notre Dame Cathedral suddenly gets enriched with all of that data. I can use it as an entry point to dive into that space in that metaverse, using everybody else's photos, and do a cross-modal and cross-user social experience that way. Of course a by product of all of that is an immensely rich virtual models of every interesting part of the earth, collected not just from overhead flight and satellite images, but from the collective memory.

Torrent of Human Contributed Digital Content

What this brought together was the incredible amount of human contributed digital content we are sitting on top of at this moment in time. This is not a new concept, but what is different is the skills, tools, and understanding to make use and sense of all this content are having to change incredibly. The Photosynth team is making use of Flickr content that has been annotated by humans (tags, titles, and descriptions), as well as by devices (date, time, location, etc.). This meta information provides hooks put pull disparate information back from its sole beauty and make an even greater beauty and deeper understanding. The collective is better than the pieces, but pulling to collective together in a manner that is coherent, adds value, and brings deeper appreciation is where get hard.

Much of information understanding and sense making to date has relied on human understanding and we have used tools to augment our understanding. But, we now need to rely on deeper analytics in quantitative methods and advanced algorithms to make sense and beauty out of the bits and bytes. The models of understanding are changing to requiring visualizations methods (much like those of Stamen Design) to begin to grasp and see what is happening in our torrent of information at our finger tips and well as make sense of the social interactions of our digitally networked and digitally augmented lives.

Amalgamation of Designer and Quant Geek

What gelled in my mind watching the Blaise demonstration is there is a skill set missing in the next generation comprised of amalgamated design, information use, analytical foundation, and strong quantitative skills. I have clients in start-up businesses and in enterprise that are confronting these floods of information they need to make sense of from folksonomies and customer generated content (including annotations and regular feedback). The skills needed for building taxonomies are not translating well when the volume of information the information managers are dealing with is orders of magnitude higher than what they dealt with previously. The designer, information architect, and taxonomist who have traditionally have dealt with building the systems of information order, access, and use are missing the quantitative skills to analyze and make sense out of a torrent of loosely structured information and digital objects. Those with the quantitative and strong analytical skills have lacked the design and art skills to bring the understanding into frame for regular people grasp and understand.

This class of designer and quant geek is much like the renaissance men, but today the field of those forging new ground is open to men and women. The need to understand not only broad but deep sets of data and information so to contextualize it into understanding is the realm of few, unfortunately as there is a need for many.

I know of limited pockets of people with the skills to do the hard work of querying the vast array of information, objects, and raw data then make something of value of it. But, there needs to be more of these people getting trained as designers with solid quantitative and analytical skills (or the converse). Design shops are missing the quant geeks and engineering shops are missing the visualization geeks that bring this digital world rich in opportunity into something that makes sense and beauty.

If you know people like this that are bored, please let me know as I am finding opportunities flowing.

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