For about as long as social networks have existed – which is admittedly not very long – researchers and data geeks have been trying to figure out how to visualize them. Digital information is generally not visible, per se. But geography is. And, increasingly, the two are intertwined, as we publish Instagram photos tagged to individual places, or tweet from GPS-enabled smartphones that record where we were when we hit "send."
As a result, a lot of otherwise invisible data that we share with each other has a visible component on a map of the world. Guys in four different neighborhoods in Manhattan are simultaneously tweeting about the same Yankees game. Or one spot in Brooklyn suddenly yields a wealth of Instagram photos – Jay-Z is taking the stage there.
This brings us back to the researchers and data geeks.
"What do social networks in cities actually look like?" asks Christian Marc Schmidt, a principal at the design studio Schema. "If you were able to identify them, what would they look like? How do they bridge the virtual and the physical?"
Or, to get even more abstract: "What if the landscape of a city were not determined by the architecture, but rather through peoples interactions?"
For starters, Manhattan might look like this, with information layered topographically atop those places that produce the most of it:
If you could zoom in on an individual data point, maybe you could click on it and and get this photo:
Or, in San Francisco, this tweet:
Schema built the 3D interactive platform from which these pictures come. The project, called Invisible Cities, indexes data from Twitter and Instagram in real time, aggregating it for up to 24 hours, and highlighting links between social-media hits that mention the same topic (maybe "love" in New York City).
Schema recently released Invisible Cities in an app for use with the Leap Motion controller, a gesture-recognition device akin to a Kinect. Because you probably don't have one of these things, you can watch this video to get the gist instead:
Invisible Cities for Leap from Schema Design on Vimeo.
The app virtually immerses you in the live social networks of five cities: New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin and Tokyo. Or, if you can't actually play with it, you can conceptually geek out on the idea instead. No doubt, there are a lot of other ways to visualize this data, too, following trending topics through time and across space. For Schema, this is just version 1.0.
All images courtesy of Schema Design.