#btconf Berlin, Germany 01 - 02 Sep 2022

Tiziana Alocci

Tiziana Alocci is an award-winning information designer, data artist, and lecturer in London. Alongside her art production, Tiziana has been working for over a decade as an information designer, collaborating with worldwide creative agencies, brands, and art institutions for the likes of BBC, the British Library, and Wired UK.

Since 2018, Tiziana has been an Associate Lecturer at the University of the Arts London, among other international guest lecturers in major European cities. In 2017, she co-founded Market Cafe Magazine, the world's first independent magazine about data visualisation. Born and raised between the sea and the “vicoli” of Genoa, she lives and works in East London, where she runs her studio playing with pixels, data, and sounds, regularly falling in love with new forms of art.

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Make It Sound

The transference of sound data into visuality

Data exists in many forms: numbers, text strings, social media feeds, and even sound. This talk will explore new ways to communicate information using sound: from data-driven album covers to art installations; this will be a personal take on the exciting world of data sonification. Tiziana will bring you into a journey wrapped in extended visualisations of the unification between sound and two-dimensional forms, only working with sonic material that consistently begins and ends with her — at times including one other person or ambient sounds within the environment.



[Audience applause]

Tiziana Alocci: Thank you so much. My name is Tiziana Alocci. I’m an information designer. I work with data.

Today I’m going to tell you a story. But in order to do so, I’m going to start playing a sound.

[Trumpet plays]

Tiziana: What you just heard is a data set showing the sea level rise in the past ten years. The data has been collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

I then use a tool to interpolate the data with a music instrument and to create this sound. So, the data visualized in a normal chart looks like this. This is called data sonification and, today, I’m going to explain why this is important.

Just to give you a bit of context, this is what I do. I am an information designer. I teach data visualization at the University of Arts London (where I live), and sometimes I play with data art. But more in general, I play with sound.

When we talk about data, it’s always a kind of abstract topic, so no one really understands what actually my job is. I like to say that I collect data. I communicate visually facts and stories based on information.

I’ve been visualizing data for more than a decade now, and I specialize in data visualization for digital products such as dashboards, things like that, things that you cannot really see online because most of these works are under NDA and they’re using technically for a company. So, it’s very corporate.

I shouldn’t say that because my clients could see that. But kind of, I mean, not so funny, but it pays the bills and, you know, inflation is real.

I also collaborate with magazines like Wired UK and the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera to make more editorially driven visualizations, and they look a little bit more complex because we try to tell stories and every data set has a story behind it. But in the last three years, I started to play a lot with sound, and that has become a little bit of my obsession.

There is this new niche area of data visualization called data sonification. The definition is the use of non-speech audio to convey information or perceptualize data.

And I must admit that I reappropriate this definition in my own practice, so I’m doing something that is not really what I’m supposed to do. So, some of the more purist data visualization designers may raise their eyebrows. I apologize.

Data sonification applies in my 9:00 to 5:00-ish job in a very important way because working for specializing in data visualization for digital products means that using sound to visualize data adds another layer to make everything more accessible. Think about a dashboard that shows the information. If you add the layer of sound to convey this information, it could make life easier to blind people, for example.

Then there is all the parts linked to the data art that I work that is a little bit of my lifeline and my necessity, and it’s where I go to just ease my mind and produce things that makes me feel better.

When I work with data, producing data artwork, I focus translating sound into an image while the traditional data sonification is about translating a data set into a sound. We are always talking about translating something.

Data storytelling is a very important part of data visualization, and it differs from it because it requires a communicator to offer a more broader and more holistic view of their message. This, for example, are two data-driven album covers that represent two waveforms that comes from two songs included in each of these vinyl records. And these are electronic and techno music tracks.

In order to make these very abstract visuals a little bit more relatable with my audience, what I do is play a lot with visual analogies. I take inspiration from nature mainly, but the inspiration can come from pretty much everywhere. What looks abstract in reality is a kind of copy of what we already see, like a jellyfish or a volcano, for example.

Marc mentioned that I have a magazine I run, an independent magazine that I co-founded in 2016. It’s the first world independent magazine about data visualization, and it’s really a work of love. It’s printed in a very small, limited amount of copy. All are numbered. It’s all the work between me and the other half of the magazine, Piero Zagami.

We publish around one issue a year. We focus the magazine on different themes. The last one, the theme of the last one was “Data Beyond Black Mirror.”

Black mirror is intended as a smartphone but also the screen of our laptop, our TV, because we wanted to see if it was possible to experience data beyond the screen.

The screen is a kind of medium now. It’s between us and the information that we want to receive. It passes through one of our five senses, which is sight. But what about all the others?

We have smell, sight, touch, hearing, and taste. But with data visualization, we focus very much on sight.

Don’t get me wrong because, of course, 99% of the work that I do is very -- can only be experienced with eyes. But data are just another tool, another instrument to make us see something that before was invisible to our eyes.

What I try to do is to create stories, yeah, create meaningful stories from data, which is one of the sentences I like the most to describe the discipline of data visualization. But since stories, of course, need an audience to exist, my role is to find the best way to get the message through. Lately, this has involved, of course, the use of sound material and audio.

But I want to do a step back. We all heard about data. Data are everywhere, especially in the last 2.5 years with the pandemic. We heard about percentages, cases, and so on. But what is data?

The definition from the Cambridge Dictionary says -- and I’m going to read this -- information, so data are information, especially facts or numbers, collected to be examined, considered, and used to help decision-making or information in an electronic form that can be stored and used by a computer.

Funny enough, I’m not a computer but I still use data. And so, I found another definition that works a little bit more with what I do.

For me, data are pieces of information about individuals organized in variables, and I intentionally save pieces of information and not, for example, numbers, because I strongly believe that data are not only numbers. So, think about words, the social media feeds, photography, sketches, everything - even people.

Let’s do an example. Let’s take tattoos. We all know what a tattoo is. Tattooing is a very old practice.

In the context of Britain and Australia, we saw an increase in this particular discipline within the 19th Century when many criminals got a lot of tattoos. And the tattoos had numerous meanings from words of love, hope, pain, friendship, and, of course, religion.

But more than anything, as a voluntary procedure, of course, tattooing provides helpful information on non-elite voices that are otherwise difficult to locate in a historical data set. For example, they are voices and stories of criminal convicts in the 19th Century.

It was 2019 when the British Library commissioned me a series of data visualization artwork for an upcoming exhibition at the British Library, which of course was delayed for two years. Thank you, COVID. It happened in April of this year and ended a couple of weeks ago.

The British Library is doing an amazing job at digitalizing every issue of all the newspapers published in the UK since many years ago. They created a digital archive with a lot of data, and I was to handle some of these data sets for this exhibition.

First, I started with this data set about tattoos. The data set that I used comes from a research called The Digital Panopticon, and it contains the most extensive information about tattooing in the 19th Century (in Britain and Australia), all digitally available. We are talking about at least 60,000 convicts who described their tattoos in a database, so basically 60,000 people who told their story to a stranger.

The language explaining these tattoos is mixed, so there were no specific criteria to collect this data, sometimes using short and vague phrases, and as a result, can be very challenging to separate deliberate tattoos from other physical marks. For example, scars.

But it wasn’t impossible, so they created this huge data set which told the story of many people. This is how their records, the database looked like. It’s a data set made of images and sketches, not numbers.

Another type of data that we can visualize are words. This giant circle -- and you’re going to see so many circles in the next slides -- is showing the distribution of the mention of the word “tattoo” from a representative selection of a British newspaper. Each line here counts the total mention per year of the word “tattoo” starting from zero at the circle center and then moving towards the end of the circle.

We noticed some peaks and valleys in the data set. We started with basically no mention and then there is a huge spike happening there. And it’s nice to notice the stories behind the data, so why there is this huge spike is because there is a mistake. Someone typed a couple of more zeros on the keyboard. No. Actually, between 1871 and 1873, there was an extensive reporting of the Tichborne Claimant legal case in which evidence from tattoos played an important role. Actually, it was evidence of a missing tattoo. That caused the peak in the data set and also caused the incarceration of a man.

To tell stories using data -- data is kind of abstract and a difficult beast -- I use a lot of visual metaphors for many reasons. The main one is to make design and artworks more relatable to my audience.

The inspiration for this artwork was the celestial map of the sky, especially the old ones. Why? Because I’m talking here about crime -- I’m going to talk about this later -- and tattoos, so two words apparently very separated. These are some of the images that I used as reference, and you can see actually how I mainly copy it, but fine.

Tattooing in the 19th Century was viewed as evidence of brutality and crime, so we have a connection. So, I paired the tattoos’ data set with a few stats about crime in the Victorian Era. Like for example, the impacts of punishments on the lives of 100,000 people sentenced at the Old Bailey in the 19th Century. The Old Bailey is the central criminal court of England and Wales.

Here it is showing the distribution over time of the indictments broken down by age group. We see a little bit of age distribution over time. The circles on the outer big circle represent the total number of indicted people each year.

Even if we all believe the data can only come from numbers, I would say probably 75% of the data used to make this artwork came from images and words. I use these case studies as an introduction for the story that I want to tell you today, which is a story about a missing photograph.

I want to introduce this story talking about a very personal project. This is the first time that I speak in public about this project, so please be nice.

I want to talk about this work because it helped me to use my skills to recreate lost memories and change how I live, work, and learn.

This collection of works, it’s called Necessity. It’s a collection of eight large-scale data visualization of not data numbers, but these are all visualizations of sounds linked to my life.

This is how it started. In 2019, after a very long illness, unfortunately, my father passed away. And I remember I was flicking through photographs and documents, memories, when I realized the only picture that I had with me was lost, was missing. And at the time, I was very upset, and this upset just represented a new emptiness.

But when working with data, for example, dealing with missing data or missing information or feeling stuck, it’s very, very common. So, I just started to do what I’ve always done.

I remember that I read (a few years ago) a sentence, an article from an American journalist called Ezra Klein that is said that especially as information and incremental developments explode in quantity, there is an increasing public hunger for understanding not so much what happened but what it means. Especially this sentence resonated a lot with me, which says, “It is less about producing new information but gathering information already on record.”

I thought, where can I do that? Can I just cry in the corner because the only picture that I wanted to have is lost, or maybe I can make one? How? I don’t know.

I decided to focus more on this direction and then you soon see why this is what it is becoming.

The process to get there wasn’t very easy. It was a little bit of a rollercoaster because, of course, you get an idea, but then it’s very difficult to make it happen.

I have a background in industrial design. I have a BA in industrial design. I started out to design and create objects, basically. But more than everything, I studied design systems, a design method.

The study of industrial design has been extremely important for my work now as a data visualization designer because it showed me that good design is the first and foremost synonym for functionality, and that’s very important when you visualize data. The work that you do has to be functional.

Then I bumped into a Master of Science in Communication Design at Politecnico of Milan in Italy where I graduated was two years of an intense course completely dedicated on data visualization, and it was many years ago when data visualization wasn’t so cool as it is now. I studied there for two years. It taught me how to shape a message to give the proper form to an idea.

I mentioned before that I teach data visualization at the London College of Communication and Chelsea College of Art. When I do so, I always try to find the right balance between form and function, combining the aesthetically pleasing aspect of information design with, of course, the functional and purpose-driven elements of statistics to create meaningful artifacts.

Ultimately, the goal is always to help people to understand the world. But what I’m trying to do now is more shifting the focus on the meaning of our messages because we are flooded of percentages, numbers, charts, but data literacy is so low that probably the public don’t fully understand what statics or statisticians are saying. It’s good to show our audience the impact that this data, these numbers have on their lives, what it really means to them.

Going back to the missing photograph, I wanted to overcome this lack of data by reusing information already available, and I want to explain and contextualize them. So, as a data visualization designer, most of the work that I do, 80%, is actually only research and sketching. All the sexy colors and shapes, they come very, very late - at a very late stage.

I approached this situation as I would approach any other project, so I started doing some research. And in 1912, the British art critic Roger Fry coined a term “visual music” to describe the abstract work of the painter Wassily Kandinsky. By the way, Kandinsky wasn’t only a talented painter, but he was also a talented musician.

Here the first lightbulb popped in, and I thought, “Ah! There is a link between art and music. That’s interesting.”

For him, the emotional power of music provided inspiration for abstract paintings that used lines, shapes, colors, dots (all the kind of geometry) to produce a visual link between music and visual representation. But he wasn’t the only one.

More recently, for over 40 years, the music pioneer and producer Brian Eno explored the complex relationship between light and sound. It was interesting as well, light and sound. He pursued a career in visual arts that have developed together with work as a musician, so I already had two evidence of maybe this idea is coming from something that has a solid base.

Then life happened, the pandemic and so on, moving forward to 2020. Out of all the negativity of that year, it happened that I crossed paths with a Berlin-based duo of DJs and music producer. I’m really happy to be here today in their own city to talk about this collaboration.

They run an independent record label here in Berlin. It’s called Sum Over Histories, and they produce electronic techno music.

They approached me because they saw some of my work on Instagram. They say, “Oh, this artwork looks very cool. Can we get some for the cover of some of our records?”

I said, “Well, that’s cool. I’d never done something like that before, never played with music, sound. Interesting.” I said, “Yeah, but you need to know that all these works are not random. They’re all unique because they all come from data. So, fine, I accept this challenge, but give me some time because I need to understand to get this to happen.”

First of all, I decided to settle on a shape. My research started, of course, with the work of Wassily Kandinsky, but for a reason. He was obsessed with geometry, especially with the shape, the shape of the circle. And he said that the circle is the synthesis of the greatest opposition. It combines the concentric and the eccentric in a single form and in equilibrium.

It sounds very fascinating. Here you can see some of the data-driven record covers that I’ve done for the record label. They change a lot in style and shape. There is always a little bit of recurring element of the circle, even if sometimes it comes in different shapes like a network diagram or a density plot.

What you see here visualized are some metrics that are naturally included in every song that we hear like amplitude, frequency, spectrum. You just are seeing them in a different way.

I produced almost 15 (maybe more) data-driven album covers during this year, during this collaboration. Sometimes records, sometimes digital releases, sometimes proper printed actual physical products, sometimes tape cassettes. I’m incredibly grateful for this collaboration for many reasons, but specifically because it created the foundation for the Necessity collection.

Of course, I never played. I never learned to play an instrument, so I apologize to all the musicians in the room. But for me, it’s extremely fascinating to see the explosion of colors, patterns, and shapes that comes from every track. And I started to associate these shapes and these colors with emotions and the feeling that I was experiencing while listening to these songs.

The process is pretty much always the same. I receive the tracks. I sit down in front of my laptop with my headphones on. I listen to the songs, and I listen to them in different moments of my day: when I work, when I exercise, when I try to relax. And I try to write down the emotion that comes from listening to these songs.

Then I pick one, the one that I like the most, and then, through a different audio manipulation software, I extract this information. Then I visualize them.

By the way, I don’t code. I don’t use any script. This is all done manually, which is a very long, time-consuming exercise, but it’s the best part of this job while you spend hours just crafting all the single details and moving things a little bit or maybe changing the color, adding a blur. Oh, it’s a very satisfying moment that last weeks, but still satisfying.

What started as a very random process, in that kind of randomness, I found something that made sense. So, I kept doing these works for years. And I got a lot of visibility and a lot of clients got in touch with me because they’ve seen these works and then we did some data sonification about more, very different topics.

But I felt that something was still missing. Maybe something was missing because I was using a material that wasn’t mine, so I was using songs that someone else made.

In the back of my mind, there is always this fact of that missing photograph, so what can I do? I decided, well, maybe I could start using the same process but focusing on sounds linked to my life.

Now I’m going to introduce, finally, the work Necessity, which by the way, this is one of the details of these prints which are one meter by one meter - very big.

As part of my life and also a way how my mind works, I keep track of everything and, for everything, it pretty much means everything. I write down notes. I take pictures. I have record sounds, obviously. But I’ve done that unconsciously since I was a child, and only quite recently, after other types of journeys, I realized that I made a job out of my necessity. This was interesting.

I record my breathing while sleeping, for example, using an app on my iPhone that I run every time I go to bed, which records the quality of your sleep, how many hours you slept, and so on.

I record the sound of a walk in the park or when I go for a run. I don’t listen to music, but I record the rhythm of my steps.

Don’t judge me. [Laughter]

I record moments with my partner, memories, and I use these sounds to map emotions. All these sounds are linked to emotions, so I’m creating an audio-visual diary of my life.

I map restlessness, grief, passion, loneliness, all the kinds of emotions.

I call this work Necessity because this work begins with data, of course, (audio) and it’s produced through a condition of necessity. It’s just my lifeline. I couldn’t do anything else.

The roots of my practice were formed in my childhood, and this was something I became aware of a few months ago where, from the early years, I began working recursively creating a single sketch daily that connected with my emerging personhood. I was doing this in primary school. I remember, I have at home at my parents’ house, this huge stack of small, squared sketches that I was doing when I was from three to six years old.

This was an exercise that my educators called Presenza, which in Italian means presence. These, from a very early age, represented an unconscious approach to the movement of quantify self, where I kind of rationalized what I’d always done, and I found this name.

Quantify self is a movement where people record data stats about their life: calorie intake, steps, things like that. For example, I just connected all the dots after all these years, and it was a kind of epiphany when I started to remember that “Oh, my God. I’ve done this for my entire life,” even without realizing it.

It was 2014 when I initiated this kind of data art experiment when I tracked and recorded the movement of the mouse when I was working on the laptop (over 12 months, every day). I created a series of 250 different graphics, which they look like this, but this is a collage of a month worth of recording.

You can see every dot is a pause, a break, and every line is a proper movement. At the bottom, there are the apps on the doc that I used the most. You can see the line at the top is me moving towards the bar of Illustrator or other software.

Documenting my life has always been a thing for me. What I did recently was just putting all these things together and connecting all these dots, literally.

This work and research focusing, exposing the self through art making, every major foundational to my production. Only recently with the help of some professional, I discovered that this work is tied to a mental landscape of OCD. It’s created as an antidote for me to obsessive cycles. This manifests differently across different types of projects, but systematically begins with the recording process and ends with an interpretive one.

The recording phase started with an introspective figure, mostly moments when I feel particularly anxious and where my mind goes is to stay busy doing a ritual: taking notes, recording stuff, doing a quick sketch, and things like that, listing numbers, you name it. I record every type of things that happens in my life. I record, for example, actions, my moment and breath as I walk through places. I record relationships, memories shared with my partner. I record unconscious behaviors - what happens when I’m going to bed.

But do you remember the missing photograph, how everything links to this? Well, as I use sound to map emotions, I thought that in order to recreate that missing photograph, I could use information already in records. Then I thought that my father used to do many public speaking, so I thought there must be some records somewhere.

I went to YouTube, and I found an interview that he did. I thought, “Wow, that’s data. I can do something.”

This a detail of the artwork.

I decided to visualize our two voices together. The piece of made of two circles. Each circle represents one voice.

The audio was taken from these recordings done, of course, in two different situations, two different years, separately. I joined them together, so I went through my process. I listened to the sound. I clipped the audios. I ran through a series of software to extract the waveform, and I finally create a composition, which is made of two circles, which do resemble a little bit of an infinite sign - not intentional.

The circles here show the amplitude of our voices and the density of the circle. You can see some is more spikey. Some here is a little bit less detailed. It shows the length of the audio clip.

As an information designer, nothing is random, so not even the colors of these artworks are random.

In the Necessity collection, all the artworks, which are four unique visualizations, comes in two different colors: a dark version and the light version. This is to respect two kind of communicated senses of ambivalence.

The colors for both of them, this one of the dark one, I took it from a picture of the sea. I come from Genoa. It’s kind of a smallish town northwest of Italy. It’s a town on the seaside, very nice and lovely.

My father and I loved the sea. I used to sail. I sailed for many, many years, so I’m really connected to the sea. Then the colors come exactly from that picture.

The other one represents the sky with the two circles that create a kind of lens flare, like when you look at the sky on a sunny day. In Genoa, it’s mostly sunny most of the year.

The process behind the works, all the works in the Necessity collection, begins with an interpretive phase, of course, and then it becomes a translation of the metrics into two-dimensional forms. As you remember at the beginning, I said the data sonification starts from a numerical data set, an Excel file, and translate that into sound. But I do appropriate the term and actually start from the sound and I make that tangible, visible.

This is often expressed in the circular elements because it’s a shape that I like particularly that I’m always using any form for the design that I made. I’m inspired by the work of Kandinsky, of course.

Circles are a form. If you think about a circle, how it’s made, dramatically speaking, circles are formed by a sequence of thousands of tiny points that merge into one curved line. There is a kind of hidden pressure pushing them from the center to the edge as they support one another.

These points represent the data points that I gathered in my recording process, so all the notes that I take, all the numbers that I list, all the pictures that I take to document my life. This invisible tension, of course, replicates the tension within my mental journey. Once again, occupied that old concept of presence of that exercise that I was doing when I was a child.

I want to show you now a little bit in detail, more in detail, what each artwork of the Necessity collection shows.

This is the first one, and it’s called Victoria. It’s called Victoria because the audio recorded to make this visualization was recorded in a park in London called Victoria Park. It’s in east London near where I live.

Going for a walk with the park was one of the only activities that was allowed during lockdown in London, so you could see many people walking in the park. That day, I was feeling a little bit meh, so I said, well, I’ll go out for a walk.

I started my recorder, and you can hear the sound of human activity, their songs, the wind through the leaves of the trees. Two people are heard speaking in a friendly conversation in German, actually. Others walked by and become part of the white noise, characteristic of an outdoor stroll.

This is the light version, and this is soundscape converted. This is a pilot piece of the entire collection. It was the first one that I did, which I didn’t like it, of course, because I never like what I do.

Its form or characteristic actually resemble the section of a tree, so I tried here to use a visual analogy as well, so this intricate pattern is trying to mimic that.

The second artwork is called Stay There. It represents the proximity of two lovers where the ring do not signify two different and separated waveforms but embody the physicality of two bodies and sets of breathing.

This is the other version with a different color approach. Here blurred frequencies emblematize the intertwining motion. This is amplified with this deep red that stained the canvas.

Recording breath as an investigation of the pattern of a restless sleeper, like I am, this is called Morpheus and chronicles the verbal markers and rhythms of the duration of one night sleep. This has become the sample to understanding the habitual sleeping patterns or maybe questioning whether external noise triggered a moment of waking or whether it is merely the provocation of the conscious mind.

Here the circle is broken, and it’s broken for a reason because I don’t sleep very well. I tend to wake many times during one night, so I thought maybe we need to break the circle for that reason.

I would like to close the presentation mentioning another artist that was very important for the work that I do, which is Mark Lombardi. Mark Lombardi was a neo-conceptual American artist, and he made a lot of big artworks showing the relationship and abuse of powers between corporations, politicians, governments, and countries mapping flows of money, power, information.

He was gathering all this data information just by reading books. Every time he was reading books about current affairs, he was writing on some index cards every time a name popped up. And he created a huge archive of 14,000 index cards.

He used the data to create these beautiful network diagrams done with pencil and paper - incredibly easy. There is a documentary on his life and his work, and he was asked to describe what he does, why he does this kind of -- why he did this kind of complicated diagrams, what he was trying to achieve.

He said, “I was searching for a vehicle that would have the graphic impact of a painting but that could convey a story.” I found that resonated a lot with all the work that I’ve done for the Necessity collection. But more than everything, he said, “It’s all public information. I’m just reprocessing it.”

This is exactly what I’ve done for my entire life. I’ve just used information that exists without creating new ones but just reprocessing them in a way that makes sense to me.

That’s all I have. Thank you so much.

[Audience applause]