SXSW Interactive: What Comes After the Information Age?

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Many panels at this year’s South By Southwest Interactive have revolved around the introduction of something new – new technologies, applications, visions or theories. But one of the most intriguing panels I’ve attended thus far was also one of the least declarative. It was held Saturday afternoon, was dubbed “Time Traveling: Interfaces for Geotemporal Visualization.” And no, it had nothing to do with traveling through time.

Instead, the dramatic question it raised was this: How do we make better sense out of this information age? How do we begin to use modern technology to not just create oceans of data, but to enhance our comprehension of this data?

Still with me?

Look at this picture here. It’s a model of wave height from the recent tsunami, expanded to a global scale to give us an added perspective of how the waves dissipated across the planet’s surface. By graphing it out in this way, we get a better sense of the scope and severity of the event. The data points become more illuminating. Our understanding becomes richer. Similarly, Saturday’s panel attempted to use the same general philosophy to graph out far more complex things. The challenge: How do we take information – information about the way society functions, lives, changes– and arrange it in such a way that optimizes comprehension. (More at Techland: The 10 Best Camera Apps for Your iPhone)

In particular, Irene Ros, a visualization research developer with IBM, looked at the Egyptian revolution and the wide swath of information that was launched onto the web during the chaos. Her query: How do we best make use of this information to construct a richer three-dimensional portrait of the uprising?

After all, we have people tweeting and liveblogging the chaos, news reporters on the ground, web videos of the clashes and thousands of photographs chronicling the carnage. This might be one of the most documented uprisings in human history. But if we were to go back and analyze only one of these data sources, are we getting the full story, about all the different issues that contributed to the revolt? If we were to map the location and volume of tweets during the 18-day upheaval, Ros said, we may get a general sense for the importance of social media in coordinating the rebellion, but no specific insight into the why or how of it all.

Similarly, Ryan Shaw, an assistant professor with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, chose to focus on various mapping techniques of San Francisco, eventually arriving back to this collage – an image constructed using Flickr data, revealing the areas of San Francisco traveled most by locals versus tourists. Here, he said, thanks to an algorithm that charts cell phone photos and user movements, we can see how the great city of San Francisco is actually split into smaller sectors, some of which cater to the tourism industry and others that must function as hubs of local activity.

Almost every week online, we see a new, revealing image like this, which represents data in stunning ways and leaves us slightly more enlightened about the way we live now. But Saturday’s panel attempted to grapple with a larger issue: Now that we have all this data at our fingertips, and these sophisticated modeling programs, how can we be better about displaying more complex material? How can we elevate the conversation? Shaw said that thanks to the San Francisco Flickr map, we might better understand the various constituencies that make up the cities within the city. But even this is just a start.

The panel began with a quick rundown of the most common representations of hard data. Graphs of events over time. Animations of events over time. Linear models of routes taken by explorers across the oceans. The conclusion: All of these graphs have considerable limitations. They can only show so many variables, can only lead to black and white conclusions. And while we have now given enough people enough tools – phone cameras, flip cameras, twitter, GPS data, digital audio recorders – to fuel a data-rich era, our analysis of all this data has failed to evolve at the same rate. Quantity now exceeds quality. We need a better context for all this content.

It’s heady stuff, and I walked away Saturday without any real answers about a vision for the future. And for their parts, Ros and Shaw didn’t pretend to have the answer either. They, along with their counterparts on the panel, were merely advocating that we become more conscious of this quest to achieve a better understanding.

Near the end of the conversation, I scribbled a phrase in my notebook: “These are the people who will guide us from the Information Age to the Understanding Age.” And so while these might have been the least flashy panelists at this year’s South By Southwest, I thought they raised some of the biggest questions. The more we use Google, Foursquare, Twitter, streaming media, social gaming – all the fun products and experiments being discussed in other panels across Austin this week – how can we use the data gathered through this modern way of life to better analyze ourselves? To create more nuanced narratives about the human condition?