Cultural Analytics

Cultural analytics is a method of employing techniques such as data analysis, information visualization, and data mining, to contemporary cultural data (Manovich, p.4). Created by Dr. Lev Manovich in 2005, the field seeks to identify cultural patterns and reveal cultural dynamics and flows through the availability of large (both micro and macro level) data sets (Manovich p.4). Through visual technologies, the field hopes to construct a research environment “that will allow he user to work with different kinds of media data” outside its typical, linear presentation form.   In their blog post, Cultural Analytics: The Next Big Thing, Franklin and Rodriguez argue that analyzing patterns in contemporary cultural areas is something that the humanities field has largely ignored. Through focusing on visual data, cultural analytics provides a “new approach for the study of culture”, constructing platforms with multiple visualization options that presents information in a variety of interesting ways (Franklin and Rodriguez). Presenting statistical cultural data- ‘statistical’ being historically understood as a function of linear, categorized information- in a dynamic, visually driven way increases its accessibility and democratizes information flows (Class Discussion). Cultural analytics works outside the linear- and takes a bottom up approach to presenting culture in an evolving and emerging fashion.

Phototrails is a cultural analytics project that “uses media visualization techniques for exploring visual patterns, dynamics and structures of user generated shared photos” (“Phototrails”). The projects database is composed of roughly 2 million Instagram photos across 13 cities. Visually mapped (or clustered) together according to location, time, or hue (color), the resulted image can “uncover social, cultural, and political insights about people’s activities in the world” (“Phototrails”). This technology combines “temporal, spatial, and visual aspects of data into a singular visualization” (“Phototrails”). Phototrails is an excellent example of a cultural analytics project as its principal data set is on of the most contemporary cultural tools- social media. In today’s technology driven world, social media is a primary method for disseminating information, and ultimately understanding and sharing culture. It functions as a visual map of social life. The aesthetic formation of the visual map or graph (the accumulated photos during a during a specific time frame at a specific location) starkly contrasts how one would typically imagine an accumulation of demographic data. As opposed to, according to Manovich, “one dimensional timelines that only show discrete dates and divide history into categories” Manovich), the data is presented in clusters, according to different selected variables (as said, location, time, hue, etc.) that allows one to observe the “visual rhythm” of a city, a sort of “data ethnography” that allows the user to “read the stories made up by user sequences” (“Phototrails”). The accumulated presented through different organization schemas allow users to compare photomaps between cities to reveal their cultural differences (“Phototrails”). The organization techniques allow users to visually find “cultural patterns across the world” according to documented social activity. This project enables a bottom up approach to culture by using and enabling on individual narratives (or histories) as data to construct and identify larger societal or cultural ebbs and flows (or Histories) (“Phototrails”).

One is able to see the uniqueness of the visualization when photos are mapped during a national event or crisis. By mapping photos as they are uploaded, the visualization “tracks behavioral patterns [and] reflects the intensity of human experience during the event” (“Phototrails”).  The visualization below shows “23581 photos uploaded to Instagram in Brooklyn area during Hurricane Sandy (November 2012) organized by time (angle along the perimeter) and hue. One is able to see the “demarcation line that reveals the moment of power outage in the area… dramatic decrease in the number of photos and their darker colors” (“Phototrails”).


Works Cited

Manovich, Lev. Software Studies.Software Studies Initiative. 17 Feb. 2015

Franklin, Kevin, and Roderiguez, Karen. “Cultural Analytics: The Next Big Thing. HASTAC. 17 Feb. 2015

Phototrails. Phototrails. 17 Feb. 2015


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