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EYEO Festival: Solidifying what I am, and what I seek to become

Posted by on Jun 18, 2013 in Blog | No Comments

I have five languishing drafts in this blog’s admin interface. One is an unfinished euphoria about the EYEO Festival from last August, when I discovered some amazing videos online, opening my eyes to a new type of work. I never was able to get my thoughts together on this, but I did know I wanted to see these speakers live, connect with attendees also interested in this subject. So, my computer, my self and my love of learning hopped a plane to Minneapolis about two weeks ago.

I wanted a new conference experience, as much as I love our dear journo world. As I was about to leave, a colleague asked me if I thought this would be a “gamechanger”. I couldn’t say at the time. But my thought process has been changed, so I think I’d answer “yes”.

Who attends EYEO? People who identify as “creative coders”. Think on that term for a minute. These are people who use the power of code and programming to create art. The code is not about implementing a certain feature, but telling a story. Sometimes it’s an actual story, sometimes a story of human emotion. The work was beautiful, informative, thought-provoking.

For one of the first times at a conference, I didn’t livetweet much. These presentations lose most of their meaning if you don’t look at the visual art presenters are describing.

I learned what I can’t do. An artist who makes gorgeous pieces with data as a backend, explained that the visual appeal is the primary focus, and understanding the underlying data is a hidden layer that is an added bonus. And I suppose that’s the difference between art and the journalism I seek to produce. Understanding the underlying data (or information) is the key and primary goal. The beauty, which ideally comes from both aesthectics and the fun of interaction and play, is the deeper layer. And maybe there’s two layers of understanding the intricacies of the data, but the information as a whole cannot be secondary. I feel like that’s a really clarifying point in terms of direction of innovation.

I want to create virtual worlds. A team from Design I/O showed work samples where you could manipulate a world within your iPad. The bright colors create a fun, playful space where thing seem like they belong to an impossible reality. Can we bring newsy situations to life like this? Is this possible to create?

I clarified my perspective on the importance of the D3 library for visualization, and better understanding the power of progressive enhancement. I don’t believe we can ignore those using legacy browsers, but neither can we hold ourselves back by not using the Next Big Thing.

I’ve been a fan of the work, but even more of the ideas of Golan Levin. Hearing him speak live was like a dream come true. For instance, you can tell me simple is better. Or hear Golan put it like this: “The pencil is the ultimate tool, instantly knowable and infinitely masterable.” That’s what our interactives should be, folks.

Another favorite session was the “Conversation with Toolmakers”, featuring Jer Thorp and Bill Atkinson, inventor of the HyperCard. HyperStudio was one of my first forays into computer programming as a kid, without me really thinking about it. I loved being able to express what I saw in my head on the screen, even though it wasn’t as much of a coding interface. Only at EYEO, did I start to think about how those moments translated to what I do now.

Anyway, Bill totally knocked it out of the park. Some quotes. On collaboration: “”100 people can paint a fence, but if you want to paint a portrait, someone’s got to hold the brush”. On what we owe our users: “When someone delights in a tool, it’s a success. If they feel stupid, it’s a failure.”

I had the opportunity to sit next to him at a different panel, and we chatted a bit. It was one of the highlights of my conference.

We talked tech, and while people were eager to explain, we were able to cut through the basics. I found words for things I’ve struggled to explain, a favorite was “parameterization”, one of the things coding is really good for, using repetition to create the same thing again and again, but with different attributes. This is easier to do with code than other means.

Lunches were filled with show and tells from other attendees, and it was amazing to see the breadth. One person’s first JavaScript app. Another doing real-time viz of music. Another visualizing social networking connections before and after last year’s EYEO. (Yeah, my network expanded too, but I don’t have a viz of that…yet!)

Other breaks were filled with going up to folks and asking for clarification on session topics, discussing wt we were inspired to do. A favorite moment was asking someone if they understood how the speaker structured the object in an example, and another person in the lunch group broke out a notebook and we diagrammed a data structure over corned beef sandwiches. The coding knowledge was assumed. And sometimes, that’s just…a nice feeling to have.

Something to note, a lot of folks showing examples used Processing, a fantastic visualization language, but one I don’t use much because it was originally best running as a Java applet on a local computer, not so good for deploying an app to the world. There’s now a way to port it to run in JavaScript, but my sense is that it still isn’t as strong for Web work. But it’s an amazing way to create art with code, I love playing with it. And if you just need to run it on one machine, even if that machine is in an art museum, then it’s great. But this is another example of where we can take lessons from the work, but it doesn’t necessarily work for journalism and news apps.

There’s so much more to add, and I’m focusing more on my reaction than the actual sessions, since you can (and should) see them on video, once they are posted soon. There were also mindblowing keynotes at night in the party-like venues and there’s a whole post somewhere about how much I enjoyed the city of Minneapolis, like a calmer, even greener DC, which was just such a great setting. And the conference venue of the Walker Art Center was this amazing art museum, and, and…sigh. This is getting long, even for me, so I’ll spare you that and start winding down at this point.

The EYEO 2013 conference phone application (which was very well-done and made logistics a lot easier) — described the panelists as having “technical and imaginative prowess topped off with a fearless ability to share.”

That couldn’t have been more true. A lot of that describes the NICARians as well, but I’ve got to admit — the “creative coders” had more imagination than I typically see in our industry. I want to be a creative coder and a journalist and create fun and informative experiences. I feel like what I learned here takes me closer.

Oh, we can’t do everything I saw at EYEO, not enough time, and not all of it fits the mission. But we can do more than we’re doing now. We can be more imaginative in our work. We can be as fearless about tech as the people I met there. I am better for entering this community, and I will never forget those three days. I look at the buildings differently as I roam DC. I sketch new types of ideas. I am not the same person I was before. And for that, EYEO community, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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