Hemsley’s ‘Steel Links’ Visualization Accepted to Cooperstown Exhibition
When the 81st annual National Juried Art Exhibition opens next week at the Cooperstown Art Association, one of the pieces hanging on the wall will belong to School of Information Studies (iSchool) faculty member Jeff Hemsley.
The piece of artwork that Hemsley submitted to the exhibition, “Data Visualization: Steel Links,” is a 3D artistic data visualization that he created from Twitter data collected in the fall of 2011, during the Occupy Wall Street movement. He came up with the idea for the visualization while he was a student working on his doctoral dissertation at the University of Washington.
“My dissertation involved studying social networks, so I was working with network visualizations, which are usually done in two dimensions,” says Hemsley. “But while procrastinating on my dissertation work, one of the things I did was to try to determine whether it would be useful to understand the networks by looking at them in three dimensions.”
What Hemsley discovered, after playing with some different ways of representing the data, is that there were some things you could see in a 3D visualization that weren’t apparent in two dimensions.
“Researchers use 2D network visualizations to understand the ways people are connected and how those connections, in turn, influence other people,” explains Hemsley. “But by setting the spheres (people) and links (connections) of traditional network visualizations in a 3D space I was able to draw attention to idea that relationships are as important as the individual. Without the strong links between people, even the largest sphere in the network is isolated and meaningless.”
In a 2D representation, all the information shown is compressed, and following where the connections go is difficult, Hemsley notes, akin to looking at a pile of spaghetti.
After his dissertation was completed, Hemsley set to work on perfecting his 3D modeling.
“I used R [a programming language and software environment for statistical computing and graphics] to create the 3D layout, and then exported the results to Blender, an open source 3D modeling program,” says Hemsley.
From there, Hemsley wrote some code to to distinguish between different circles and network connections. Each sphere represents a person and each link between them is a case where one person retweeted another.
“The links are stronger than the nodes themselves,” says Hemsley, explaining his rational for displaying the data the way he does. “As individuals, we’re a product of all of the people that we connect to, which are visually reflected in the spheres. We would say our identities are socially constructed by those around us. I feel this captures the idea that we are socially constructed beings.”
Preparation time alone for the print was close to 100 hours, as Hemsley built and adjusted low-resolution mockups. Rendering the final image took nearly 200 hours of computer time and created a file of over 350 megabytes. The image was printed on a 2-foot-by 2-foot piece of aluminum by infusing dyes directly into the metal.
At the iSchool, Hemsley teaches a course in information visualization.
“As a teacher of visualization, I think design is important; it’s what allows a piece to successfully communicate with an audience, it makes it approachable,” says Hemsley. “Most of my class deals with data and not with design; but for me, having my piece selected for the exhibition is an exciting perk, it’s a validation of my design work.”
His piece, and all others shown in the exhibition, will be available for purchase. Hemsley set the price at $1,500.
“I originally created it to put on my wall because I like it,” notes Hemsley. “I did it more for the experience, not with the idea of selling it for a profit.”
The annual National Juried Art Exhibition is open to artists working in all media residing in the United States. The summer show runs from July 15 through Aug. 19, and coincides with the peak of Cooperstown’s summer tourist season. This year’s juror is Peter Russom, a professor of art at SUNY Plattsburgh.
For more information about the exhibit, including opening hours and directions, visit the Cooperstown Art Association’s website.