Friday, June 25, 2010

The People and Impetus behind Many Bills is a public watchdog group that uses the data from Congressional voting records on bills, supporting and opposing interests for each bill, and campaign contribution data to revealing connections that could never before be easily seen.

In September 2009, the Visual Communication Lab (the VCL) of the IBM Center for Social Software hosted an event called "the Transparent Text Symposium," spurred by the US government initiative for transparency. MapLight had heard about the symposium and sent the VCL the text of bill HR627, the "Credit CARD Act of 2009." This bill (now Public Law No: 111-24) is an amendment to the Truth in Lending Act, and was created to make sweeping changes in the credit card industry and protect consumers against egregious pricing.

The bill is 33 pages. The content of almost all of it relates to the title of the bill, and what you'd expect. On page 31, however, section 512, titled PROTECTING AMERICANS FROM VIOLENT CRIME, concerns the right to bear firearms in National Parks. Two questions immediately arise: 1. Why would anyone want to allow automatic rifles in National Parks, and 2. What was that doing in a bill about consumer credit card protection? Then the VCL asked themselves a third question: "As a visual communication lab, how could we help people find things like this?"

Lab members Irene Ros and Yannick Assogba decided to take on the challenge to create a tool to help reveal various topics in a bill - not just the bizarre outliers like this one - but all topics. This came to be the germination of a research project - how could a text corpora best be navigated visually? What impact would a visualization have on people's ability to find what they were looking for. And, who would be likely to use this type of tool?

According to Assogba, "We decided to present the bills in a map mode with the text as a zoomable entity. Knowing that these bills are filled with "legalese" our first step was to help people navigate through the data to find the general area they wanted to examine." On April 5, 2010, after many designs, prototypes, and user input, the team launched a public Beta of what is now called Many Bills. Says Ros, "Our hope is that the interface offers users an overview of this complex dataset while still allowing for full access to the original text." Now that the tool has been available for almost three months, they are beginning to understand what things people want to explore and how better to show that. The next big push is to contact Many Bills visitors who have offered to provide feedback and see how they respond to some proposed feature additions and design changes the researchers would like to make.

Have you visited Many Bills? Try browsing. Or, take a look at various versions of HR627 on its journey through Congress. If you have comments, click the Feedback button on the site to give Assogba and Ros your ideas.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Jer Thorp examines how a new era of open data is affecting science, art, and design

On June 21, 2010, the Cambridge lab of the IBM Center for Social Software will kick off a new speaker series open to the public. Our aim with this series is to attract a steady local audience and build a community of interest by hosting speakers who are well-known and respected in their area of social software.

We are very pleased to have Jer Thorp, data artist and educator, as our first speaker. Jer is a former geneticist. He uses that background in his practice to explore "the many-folded boundaries between science and art." His art has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, BusinessWeek and the CBC. His award-winning software-based work has been exhibited in Europe, Asia, North America, South America, and Australia and all over the web.

Jer is an instructor in Langara College’s Electronic Media Design Program, a frequent guest lecturer at the University of British Columbia and Emily Carr University, and a sought-after speaker at various venues around the world.

Jer's Talk: Hacking the Newsroom

In February of last year, the New York Times announced that it was giving away the keys to 28 years of data - news stories, movie reviews, obituaries, and political statistics - all for free. Whether the dying gasp of an legendary institution, or the beginnings of an extraordinary rebirth, the release of this vast and historically significant information has been a boon to data visualizers, entrepreneurs, social scientists and artists around the world.

In this session, Jer will show a variety of work that he has produced using data from The New York Times, The Guardian, and other traditional and non-traditional media sources. He'll show how to access this information easily, and will share code samples to get you started in explorations of your own. Along the way, he'll attempt to examine how a new era of open data is affecting science, art, and design.

This event will take place Monday, June 21st 2010. 3:30pm-5:00pm at 1 Rogers St, Cambridge MA. Admission is FREE.

More info and registration at Eventbrite