As the setting to begin explaining what he does, Martin Wattenberg, the computer scientist and mathematician, has chosen a room at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art filled with more than 1 million plastic cups.
“Individually,” Wattenberg said, “the cups are boring and meaningless. But when combined together with an interesting method, it does something profound.” In this case, the artist Tara Donovan has used an algorithm to stack the cups in such a way that, when viewed en masse, they create a topographical model of a whimsical canyon that is so stunning that it’s hard to remember that all you’re looking at is a bunch of boring and meaningless 21-centiliter plastic cups.
This, Wattenberg says, is what he does with data. He works in data visualization, a discipline that is usually associated with number-crunching scientists. But Wattenberg has focused on visual explorations of culturally significant data — everything from baby name popularity to the history of the edits on the Wikipedia article about abortion — to create images that are both instantly illuminating and museum-quality beautiful.
His visualizations have been shown at the Boston Museum of Modern Art and, beginning next week, will be the featured exhibition for a two-month installation on outdoor screens in Harvard Square that are part of the Cambridge-based Lumen Eclipse public art project.
Wattenberg, 38, said he thought about nothing but math until he was in his mid-20s, but in the final year of studying for his doctorate in mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, he fell in love with the potential of the Internet (which was still in its training wheels phase). So instead of pursuing a traditional academic track, he moved to New York to look for a job with a media company, and landed at Smart Money.
It was there that he got hooked on using graphics and interactivity to create new ways of seeing information, and helped create the influential “Map of the Market,” which provided a simple color overview of the health of the financial markets. Green was good, red was bad; lately, the page has been awfully red.
In 2002, he moved to Massachusetts to become a founding manager of IBM’s Visual Communication Lab in Cambridge, and he began exploring the emotional potential of data visualization. “The traditional approach to visualization in science and business is to create something transparent and neutral — a telescope with clear glass,” he said as he roamed through the ICA exhibit. “But for an emotional approach, or an artistic approach, you want to bring a point of view. Not all data is interesting. The art is pointing the telescope at the right set of data.”
An important moment in his career happened somewhat inadvertently, when his wife, Laura, got pregnant with their second child. “When we were choosing a name, I would propose them and then she would go to the Social Security Web site and get stats for names and then create graphs showing me what names were getting too popular.” This back in forth eventually led her to write a book, 2005’s The Baby Name Wizard, and Wattenberg created an interactive visualization for her Web site that charted name popularity over time. The tool became hugely popular, and made him start thinking about visualization in a new way: as a group collaboration.