Aesthetic Data

I have a confession to make: I am a sucker for bright ideas and bright people – particularly when those ideas resonate with my academic work, or when they strike a particular aesthetic cord with me. And there are a number of places on the web, where both can usually be found abundantly. One of these places is a podcast, “Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders” produced by the Stanford Department of Management Science and Engineering. Another one is the homepage of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference and in particular their videocasts.

When browsing their website, I came across a short presentation by Jonathan Harris, who has done work, which not only resonated with our own, but is just simply beautiful. Jonathan is both a computer scientist and an artist, who is trying to understand the world and us human beings by analyzing the content and artefacts they are contributing on the web. He does this by collecting huge amounts of data, which he then visualizes in incredibly beautiful displays. One of his most impressive projects is the “We feel fine” project.

In “We feel fine” he scours the world’s blogs and extracts all those sentences from blog entries which contain the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling”. If a sentence like this is found, it is scraped and transferred into a database. Using language processing it is then scanned to determine whether it contains a set of “pre-defined” feelings. If the blog post contains a picture, that is scraped too and associated with the sentence. Using statistics and a lot of visualization, Jonathan can draw an amazing amount of conclusions about “how the world feels” at the moment. I did a search just now, asking, how both men and women in the UK feel, when the weather is sunny between 2005 and 2007. The results speak volumes: the top 10 emotions in descending order are: ill, old, free, tired, weired, sorry, down, guilty, sad and happy.
Conceptually, there is so much in this that is analogous to the work some of my colleagues are doing here in the Centre (data gathering and analysis in Crystal Eye for example…..I am sure that if we were allowed to gather a bit more metadata than we are, we could tell so much about what’s occupying science at the moment, follow scientific progress etc…..just by looking at the molecules people are working on), and so much that we will have to learn about yet (e.g. analysis and visualization of large data sets, useful representations of data for chemistry).
But enough of me, best let Jonathan do the talking and the presentation. And I urge you to spend some time with the “We feel fine” website….it is fascinating.

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