Data visualizations: Using data to explain the world around us

April 8th, 2011

Panel presentation, Thursday, May 19, at Boston Globe. Doors open at 6 pm (cookies and coffee!), with presentations from 7-8 pm.

Ben Fry, who  is principal of Fathom, a design and software consultancy in Boston, is a co-developer of Processing, an open source programming environment for teaching computational design and sketching interactive media software. The software won a Golden Nica from the Prix Ars Electronica in 2005. The project also received the 2005 Interactive Design prize from the Tokyo Type Director’s Club. In 2007, Casey Reas and Fry published Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists with MIT Press, and in 2010, they published Getting Started with Processingwith O’Reilly and MAKE. Processing 1.0 was released in November 2008, and is used by tens of thousands of people every week.

He received his doctoral degree from the Aesthetics + Computation Groupat the MIT Media Laboratory, where his research focused on combining fields such as computer science, statistics, graphic design, and data visualization as a means for understanding information. After completing his thesis, he spent time developing tools for visualization of genetic data as a postdoc with Eric Lander at the Eli & Edythe L. Broad Insitute of MIT & Harvard. During the 2006-2007 school year, Ben was the Nierenberg Chair of Design for the Carnegie Mellon School of Design. At the end of 2007, he finished writing Visualizing Data for O’Reilly.

Glenn McDonald is the designer and product manager for Needle (, ITA Software’s graph database and platform for data collection, collation, curation, exploration, analysis and republishing. He is also the court statistician for heavy metal, and a caped data vigilante. He believes that data is important, and that computers can and should be tools for people to make sense out of what they supposedly know.

Daigo Fujiwara, an infographics designer for the Boston Globe/, was born and grew up in Japan. He came to Massachusetts as a high school foreign exchanging student and as a baseball fanatic, found himself right at home with Red Sox Nation right at home. He has also worked at the Christian Science Monitor, Inc Magazine and FastCompany Magazine.

Plenty of parking & access from the Red Line. (It’s a 5 min walk from the JFK/UMass stop.)

Hands-on Census class by Hacks/Hackers in Boston

March 14th, 2011

Arthur Bakis from the Boston office of the US Census Dept will conduct a hands-on class for reporters and others on March 22. He will show people how they can unearth important facts and trends being released by the Census for the nation and Massachusetts. The Census is in the middle of releasing decennial data, as well as information from the American Community Survey (and learn what the difference is).

Arthur has been with the Census Bureau for 11 years. He serves as Information Services Specialist and is responsible for disseminating census data to the public and spreading awareness about available demographic and economic data and data products throughout New England.

The class is sponsored by the Boston chapter of Hacks/Hackers and will be held at the Boston Globe.

Bring your own laptop!

9 quick book reviews: The good & the bad

March 12th, 2011

Here’s some short reviews of the good and bad I’ve been reading:
Under the Harrow. By Mark Dunn. I can’t begin to express how much I enjoyed this novel, which is the best read of this lot. Imagine a group of people hidden away in a secret valley in Pennsylvania, who have been cut off from the rest of civilization for the last century – and whose main learning consists of the complete collection of Charles Dickens. Lots of dark secrets are about to be revealed. I’m on the lookout for more books by Dunn. An excellent fantasy novel.
The Bellini Card by Jason Goodwin. A detective series set in 19th century Istanbul, this time with a side visit to Venice. Yashim the detective is searching for a possible portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror. Very entertaining and the period details are great. Who knows much about old Istanbul?
A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate. By Kenneth S. Stern. An oldie from 1996, written after Waco. Feels like it was written quickly but gives a decent overview of the extreme American right in that era. Decent.
Watson and DNA. By Victor K. McElheny. Bio of James Watson, who won the Nobel with Francis Crick for discovering DNA. The book is fascinating up to the discovery and shortly afterwards. Lots of details about scientific discovery in the 1950s. Loses momentum after that as it devolves into his life as an administrator at Harvard, which is not nearly as interesting.
John Kay: Magic Carpet Ride. The autobiography of John Kay and Steppenwolf. By John Kay & War II German soldier, who died in the war. His mother escaped from East Germany after the war, eventually settling in Canada. Not a bad read, for fans of the band.
Hitler’s Savage Canary: A history of the Danish Resistance in World War II. By David Lampe. I’m a big history buff, so wanted to like this book. But the writing is not very good and I couldn’t finish it. Can’t recommend.
If the Dead Rise Up. By Philip Kerr. I’m a huge fan of Kerr and this doesn’t disappoint. Half the novel is set in Germany in the 1930s, shortly before the infamous Berlin Olympics. It follows Bernie Gunther, a hotel detective, who hates the Nazis but wants to stay alive. The second half is set in corrupt Havana, Cuba, during the 1950s. Throw in a beautiful woman and a cold-blooded killer keeps appearing in Gunther’s life. Excellent read.
Hell’s Horizon. By Darren Shan. A fantasy novel set in dystopic city sometime in the future. It’s a dark adventure. Fair.
• Run for Your Life. By James Patterson. Detective Michael Bennett is chasing a calculating murderer called the Teacher. Entertaining popcorn for the mind.

Read an e-book week: 1/2 price promotion on tons of cool books … including mine. ;-)

March 7th, 2011

This week is “E-book promotion week,” with thousands of authors offering big discounts on e-books — including me. My two thrillers, “The Called” and “The Black Druid”, are on sale for price $1.50.

The Called: Something had been sleeping under Lake Champlain for centuries. Something dangerous and best left asleep. But now archaeologist Charles O’Hare has unwittingly uncovered the key to awakening it. To controlling it. But someone else understands what he has uncovered much better than O’Hare — someone who has deep understanding of dark arts … and has no scruples about using that power.

The Black Druid: Dead and gone. That’s what they said about the ancient Druids. But maybe not quite. Maybe a handful still exist, hidden in the shadows, weaving dark plots. So what’s their connection to the street kids who keep disappearing — just gone, as if they had never existed? And now a rock agent with more problems than sense finds his own life in danger for asking too many tough questions…

Boston Hack Day Challenge: cool apps, total fun

February 27th, 2011

A Monday add: Here are the winners of the Boston Hack Day Challenge. And here’s some neat video. (And yeah, that’s me explaining Recycled Bargain Finder.)

It’s Sunday and we’re having a blast at the Boston Hack Day Challenge. #bostonhack on Twitter. Pix on Flickr.

It’s a fun hackathon competition (with emphasis on fun) whose goal is to create apps that make life better for Bostonians. Is it fun? Yeah, absolutely.

I’m on a three-person team, working with Annie Shreffler and Kate Geyer working to create the Recycled Bargain Finder. Our app connects people looking for yard sales, thrift shop sales etc in a geographic area with those who are hosting sales. That’s the idea anyways. ;-)

Kate is our coder; Annie and I have been doing some HTML and designing the pages. We think this is an app could find a real life home someplace, say on We’ll see.I haven’t really done a hackathon before — I’m just learning to code — but the work & atmosphere is exhilarating.

I was all jazzed up when I got home last night and had trouble calming down. Anyways, we really like our app so far. There’s about 150 people competing here, in about 20+ teams. Incredibly interesting people. The event is sponsored by, with Hacks Hackers Boston as a partner.

Mobile, Gawker redesign, and Twitterfication of news at Hacks/Hackers Boston

February 23rd, 2011

The future of news is snuggled in your pocket.
The number of people reading news on mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, such as the iPad, is surging, finally fulfilling the future that has been predicted for mobiles the past few years, said members of a Hacks/Hackers Boston panel on “Start the Presses: News sites of the future, told by the people building them.”
For rest of story…

Obama’s budget: How the money is spent

February 15th, 2011

The New York Times makes the best graphics,m day in day out. Their team is experienced and understands their topics well. This budget graphic is no exception. The concept is relatively simple — uses blocks to indicate the amount of money spent. But it is extremely effective. I especially like how the pre-sets include items like “discretionary spending,” etc. Just a job well done.

Public unveiling of Google’s Ngram Viewer

February 11th, 2011

Take 15 million books and 4 billion words, use a simple interface to search for a few words or phrases, and presto – you have Google’s Ngram Viewer.

Ngram creates charts that show how often words or phrases have occurred in books since 1800. It can be used to trace to rise and decline of certain words, giving clues to researchers. Or it can be used for simple fun – (Red Sox, Yankees).

Jon Orwant, leader of the Google’s Digital Humanities effort and one of three co-creators of the Ngram, spoke to about 75 people at a meeting of the Boston chapter of Hacks/Hackers at Google in Cambridge on Feb. 9.

Orwant, a former publisher, described the Google Books project and how Ngram can be use. The Book project now has scanned in about 15 million books, or more than 10 percent of the estimated 129 million books “printed since Gutenberg,” he said.

(To try out:

Users can see how often words or phrases (up to 5 words) have appeared in print since 1800.

While it can be a lot of fun, it’s also a scholarly tool. But Orwant, who grew up in Fitchburg where his father was a reporter for the local paper, warned that he sees it more as a tool for helping discover which questions need to be asked, and “not an oracle.”

For instance, try: nursery school, kindergarten, and child care. “Kindergarten” is in heavy use from the 1860s on, peaking in the 1920s and 1930s, with a gradual decline. “Nursery school” is big in the 1940s, but has been on a long decline, too.

However, use of the term “child care” has exploded since the 1970s, far eclipsing use of the other terms. For a researcher interested in education or child rearing, the chart raises interesting questions.

The other two developers of Ngram are William Brockman (also in attendance), and Matthew Gray.

Orwant is an engineering manager at Google, where he works on Book Search, Patent Search, visualizations, and the digital humanities. He’s the author or co-author of several books on programming, including the bestselling Programming Perl, and once published an independent computer magazine. Before joining Google he was the CTO of O’Reilly & Associates and Director of Research for France Telecom. He received his doctorate from MIT’s Electronic Publishing Group in 1999.

Start the presses: ‘News sites of the future…’

February 11th, 2011

Wondering what news websites will look like in the future? Find out at this panel on Feb 22 at the Boston Globe, featuring the people building them from the ground up at both the local and international levels.

The panel will dive into how the mobile web, HTML 5, Flash, app stores and more impact and change what news organizations need from their content management systems, and will feature the creator of Drupal, Dries Buytaert, as well as the founder of Universal Hub, Adam Gaffin, who has helped build numerous community news sites using the platform.

Come with questions and curiosity as the architects of tomorrow’s news systems explain what they see as important to the future of news.

(Other panelists to be announced.)

Moderator: Michael Morisy,

For more details, click here.

Feb 9: Hear about Google’s cool new tool

February 8th, 2011

Wed, Feb 9, at Google in Cambridge.
Sponsored by Hacks/Hackers Boston
Event details here

The Google Books Ngram Viewer lets people track how phrases in books have waxed and waned throughout the centuries. Building on top of the 15 million books that libraries and publishers have given to Google for scanning, it provides a simple and quick visual interface for illustrating trends in usage. Jon Orwant, the leader of Google’s Digital Humanities effort and co-creator of the tool, will discuss how it came to exist and show some ways it’s being used for both academic and casual purposes.

Jon Orwant is Engineering Manager at Google, where he works on Book Search, Patent Search, visualizations, and the digital humanities. He’s the author or co-author of several books on programming, including the bestselling Programming Perl, and once published an independent computer magazine. Before joining Google he was the CTO of O’Reilly & Associates and Director of Research for France Telecom. He received his doctorate from MIT’s Electronic Publishing Group in 1999.