In mathematics, there is a particularly beautiful equation called the Vogel Spiral. To a nonmathematical mind, the formula seems arcane and impenetrable, but give it to a programmer and they can unfurl its variables until it precisely models the interconnecting spirals that form the pattern of florets in the head of a sunflower.
For years, U.K. designer Brendan Dawes has been drawn to the Vogel Spiral. In 2007, he first experimented with an Adobe Flash–based navigation system built on the algorithm. But Dawes’s latest work uses the spiral to much more breathtaking effect and scope. Using the collected tweets of 11 British cities as his florets, Dawes has frozen the social media pattern of 72 hours into the head of a digital sunflower.
In late October last year, British mobile carrier Everything Everywhere (EE) went live with its 4G LTE service in 11 cities: London, Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, and Southampton. As a way of promoting the network, the company approached Dawes to visualize the social media chatter in those cities during the three-day LTE launch window, paying particular attention to how people were talking on Twitter about 4G.
The result was a series of stunning data visualizations, which Dawes calls Digital City Portraits, but are really social media sunflowers. In these infographics, a handful of seeds representing the most popular trending topics over 72 hours sprout colorful gossamer threads that weave together into a stalk. From there, these fibers grow upwards, eventually exploding into a head made up of thousands of florets. Each floret represents the most popular trending topics at a particular moment in time: anything from Hurricane Sandy to the latest James Bond movie, to the U.S. presidential elections, to a Manchester United soccer game. And yes, 4G rollout, too.
On the phone, Dawes can be both self-effacing and lyrical about his approach to data visualization. One moment, he might be describing himself as “the Kim Kardashian of data visualizers.” The next, he will argue that, to make data understandable to a large populist audience, an Excel spreadsheet is simply not enough.
“All I want to do is put out things into the world that cause a bit of disruption,” Dawes tells Co.Design. “My job is to make something beautiful, and to get an emotional response from people who see it. A spreadsheet isn’t going to get that response. Data needs poetry to be felt, and my job is to inject that poetry.”
Although there is plenty of poetry in Dawes’s digital portraits, the visualization itself is the result of sophisticated computer modeling.
“To make each city’s visualization, I took all of the Twitter data for three days between October 28th and October 30th, 2012. I then mapped that data out across 4,320 points, which is the number of minutes in three days,” Dawes explains. “Time in each visualization travels from the center outward, so the earliest data is grouped in the middle, and the last day is the outer rim. Each dot is a minute of time, and each circle represents a subject. It’s not so much a spiral, but it explodes outwards.”
In London alone, just one of the 11 cities EE commissioned Dawes to visualize, Dawes had to analyze over a million rows of data to come up with his portrait. “When I tried to feed it into my program, it just crashed trying to process all the data,” Dawes laughed. “I had to completely rewrite my model so it didn’t choke itself to death.”
Once Dawes’s code had been reprogrammed, though, interesting social media patterns began to emerge. For example, on the second day Dawes was capturing Twitter data, Hurricane Sandy landed in New York, leading to a pollen-like explosion of chatter about a superstorm that was over 3,000 miles away. Also frozen into the pattern of the sunflower is the exact moment that Obama arrived in New York to inspect Sandy’s damage.
Dawes also found that he could identify cities at a glance just by looking at their respective portraits.
“Each city has its own unique identity,” Dawes says. “In Glasgow, people mostly talked about money. In Manchester, the local football club was playing a match, so you can see these big red explosions whenever they score a goal. The same is true of Liverpool, another big football city. Some cities were more tech savvy than others, so they talked about 4G more. Some cities even slept more, resulting in big black spaces, but London was almost always awake.”
While Dawes’s social media sunflowers are visually arresting, 4G seems somewhat underrepresented in a project that was originally commissioned to promote LTE rollout in the U.K. But Dawes says this was a consequence that EE was okay with.
“To be honest, the portraits were originally more biased towards 4G, but EE asked me to take that bias out,” recalls Dawes. “They were more interested in creating a work that showed how people were using social media and data networks, not just something they could use to promote their own products.”
So what do Dawes’s Digital City Portraits really tell us about the way we use Twitter and other social media networks?
“These portraits are a fingerprint of different cities frozen in time,” Dawes says. “People on Twitter talk about a lot of different things, then something big happens. It explodes, and everything coalesces around it. Yet the next day, it’s like it never happened.”
Like us, what we talk about on Twitter is ephemeral and organic. But just like in the head of a sunflower, the florets of our wilting and blossoming interests can be frozen into an evocative pattern of exquisite intricacy. All it takes is the right equation. Or, as Dawes might put it, the right poetry.