Third time’s not a charm

Me: this sem review will be fun no? 😛
Rasagy: Sem review? As in your blog post wala?
Me: yes 😀
Rasagy: I wonder what you’ll write in there this time! 😛
Me: exactly.. ditto to you
Rasagy: I’m not posting. You’re the one who posts sem wise. I’ll post next year 😀

Indeed, half this semester was marred by a module that made me wonder what I was doing with my life. I know, I am still a crappy designer but what I felt this semester module left me just feeling plain stupid and so I will not be speaking about it at all. Some part of this failure project has been documented here.

So here are the highlights of this semester.

We started this semester with a new faculty Mr. Venkatesh Rajamanickam, rumoured to take over as the new IID coordinator. At first we were apprehensive about how this would shape IID as a discipline. But our fears were unfounded because within the first few days itself, we realized how awesome he was and still is. I personally had an awesome time, discussing things with him. He showed me Durell Bishop’s Answering Machine which blew my mind. Someone doing such work, when I was in preschool was something I had not imagined. From this I learnt that ‘Why should something digital always mean having a display?’ Sadly, all good things tend to end and with this semester end, Venkat resigned from NID citing personal reasons- a loss, that IID will feel for quite sometime.

Moving on, one of the things that I had decided to follow this semester is try and document my projects. And document I did 😀 You can find the projects over here at the Projects page. This was good because when the time to make a jury presentation came about, I just had to go back to the posts and find the relevant content already prepared by ‘the past’ me.

Being sent to MIT’s DIy workshop was an eye-opening experience. This I feel was the central design project that I did this semester. A week packed to the brim with research, design, prototype and testing; I wish we had atleast one module this intensive at NID, every semester.

As for data visualizations, I’ve begin to realize the balance that I will try to maintain in my work anymore. Not too functional and not too arty. Easier said than done. My semester work is out here.

I became aware of real interaction design thanks to Sudhakar’s interactive classroom assignment. I intend to take this output forward.

So there, another semester goes by and am not any closer to figuring out what I want to do after this. All in all, as I look back this was not really a bad semester. I got to interact with Girish Dalvi a whole lot as part of his Grids and Layouts workshop and APCHI. Arun’s Geo viz workshop gave me a diving board into cartography. Listening to keynotes at APCHI was also wonderful, interacting with Jun Rekimoto or Alan Dix was not something I imagined I would be doing at the beginning of this semester.

What I hope I shall learn some more about the next semester is physical visualizations, tangible user interfaces and anarchistic visual design. A tall order to fulfill but next semester’s going to be a bore otherwise.


Design School : Year One

After last semester, I wrote what I had learned. At the end of this semester I was confused what really happened in that one semester. So I thought I could use this post to talk about other things that I experienced this year.

After last semester, I wrote what I had learned. At the end of this semester I was confused what really happened in that one semester. So I thought I could use this post to talk about other things that I experienced this year.

Being a Quizzer, you end up having an ego because you have all that information in your head, ready to spout out at the slightest notice. I really believe that that knowledge repo originating from a well read childhood is one of my strengths. Still I was humbled in Girish Dalvi’s typography workshop when I couldn’t answer any question that he threw at us. I mentioned last semester that reading is crucial. But this semester was when I realized that the reading stack is hundreds of books high. Actually, its infinite.

Open Elective although a major disappointment (atleast I got to meet some awesome people) had a good theme this year – Old age. Our world is increasingly getting older but most companies out there are busy trying to solve endemic problems. In one year, I might end up in the same industry and that actually made me wonder if I should try to end up someplace else where I can really make a difference.

Good research is important. Last semester made me realize that. I also realized that surveys, interviews mostly masquerade as research methods. I have lost faith in both of them while at the same time learning that custom research methods(like this one) make for better insights. I have begun to believe more in end user testing.

Talking about things make them better. I learned that getting people to critique your idea or talk to them about it is the best way to get out of that creative rut that you find yourself in. When you are working on it all by yourself you will not see be able to see what it is that is not working with your design.

I learned and built my first grid based presentation which was well received by the Jury. Except for my Cognitive Ergonomics work, the rest of what I presented seemed to have been appreciated. This is a big improvement from last semester where I was mostly clueless about the work I was presenting.

I’ve realized that the design process you follow is really important. I still have a long way to go before I learn to use it well. Working on MSR’s Design Expo this year made me realize the value of a good process. When working on Meteorites, I somehow formed a process unknowingly and it did help me to produce the end result. It’ll help you where your skills wont.

And you can learn anything given that you want to. At the end of last semester, I only knew Photoshop which I had largely picked up while at TCS. Now, I am comfortable with Illustrator and I even made a short film on Adobe Premiere Pro. A desire to create things in crunch time really helps me learn faster. Hence deadlines are good.

Hard deadlines are even better. Work only gets done if they are enforced. Most of last semester’s projects did not turn out so well because I kept procrastinating. Maybe because…

I fear big projects especially due to the lack of experience. We have not done anything big academically and I wonder how equipped I will be to deal with full projects all alone. Hope I can confront that fear this semester. Geronimo!

One of my favourite moments of last year was lying on @nid_b’s roof and looking for shooting stars. The cold, the company and the squeals when you spot a golden trail all made that night magical. Also worth noting are the Paldi campfires. This time next year, I shall be lamenting the end of 2 years and I shall miss ‘this’ life dearly.

You can read Rasagy thoughts on ‘Year One’ here.

Building ‘Meteorites: Earth Impact’

It all started with this tweet. Time was scarce indeed and I had not created an interactive visualization till now. I was supposed to have been doing some d3 this holidays but I never got round to it.

The dataset provided for the contest has 45k+ rows and that was slightly intimidating for a beginner like me.

So I initially decided to take a small set of the data and use it. Like the top 10 found and fell meteorites size wise. Using Tilemill to geotag these was simple anyway.MeteoritesAs you can clearly see above, the size of the red and yellow dots represent the found and fallen meteorites respectively. The relative size of theirs is because of their actual size varies that much with the biggest weighing in at 60 tons. Problem with this graphic was that the size was too big for you to pinpoint the targeted coordinate. Certain impact points hid/overlapped with others. No additional information about the meteorites could be presented.

This led me to the second iteration. Importing a slightly better map into Illustrator(via Export as PDF from Tilemill, SVG didn’t work for me), I played around with labelling the meteorites and this resulted with the map below.

Meteorites-vizThings seemed a little clearer in the above version, but there were still some problems. The scale was skewed a lot if I considered only these values. The yellow dots were nearly invisible and the red ones overshadowed everything. About that time I came across this visualization. That prompted me to play with the impact sizes a bit more. Iterations were made to get the size right. It was a slow process because most of the dots overlapped and made sections obscure. Finally I came up with this before I slept just past midnight.

reddotsPlaying with the opacity above gave me an idea about the denser areas. At around this time, when I was discussing these visualizations with @Rasagy, @Hashnuke asked if I wanted the reverse geotagged locations so that I could perhaps map the Countries in a sort of choropleth. He said he would write a script and run it using a reverse geotag service like Google. So we set Sunday as the day to do this.

I continued to work on Tilemill and decided to export the map and host it on Mapbox. Decided to learn Wax so that I could build an interactive visualization. At that moment, most of the visualization that you see at the end was forming in my head. With 2 days left to go for the submissions at I decided to give it a go.

Playing around with Wax led me to a bug when the map was fullscreen and led me to file my first issue at Github. After that I got stuck while trying to figure out pivot tables in MS Excel. @Sevenaces helped me realise my stupid mistake and I got the data I need to plot the Column charts.

Choosing a charting library was the next thing. I wanted something simple that did not need too much work, offered interactivity out of the box, etc. I went through my bookmarks to check dviz. I had been meaning to use this sometime soon and decided to for this project. The other option I had was dviz but the simplest examples looked like a lot of work. That tipped the scales in dviz’s favour. dviz is the simplest charting solution for people who don’t know javascript and wont be bothered to learn javascript. So the column charts worked wonderfully. Stacked column charts were my first option but that showed me the fact the the fallen meteorites were much lesser and were easily hidden by the found meteorite data. Hence I decided to separate the two charts and show the data separately. Poking around Google’s Visualization api, I figured how to customize the dviz charts some more. I used Flatuicolors for the colours. That done, I turned to Foundation 3 to build something simple.

Next, Akash walked me through setting up a github account, hosting a .io repo there. I installed Github for Windows and everything was simple and intuitive. Git incidentally was something I was meaning to learn from a long time, this project gave me and opportunity to do that. The prototype visualization was up and online on Saturday night but it was quite a long way from finishing.

There were obviously problems with the data set. The section at 0,0 seemed to be awfully dense for a point in the middle of the ocean. This led me to review the dataset. I found that more than 10k rows didnt have coordinate data and some of them had 0,0 instead. I decided to clean these rows out of the geotagging. They were bad locations and did not contribute of anything. The dataset was now slightly above 32k rows. More Tilemill followed. Tilemill kept hanging every now and then and I had to close it every few minutes. Frustrating indeed. The huge dataset could be a possible reason. Figuring out the legend and tooltip design took me some more time. Finally the map was done. More hangups followed and I was finally able to export and host the final map on Mapbox.

The next problem came due to the 32k row .csv file. The big file was throwing errors. We then split the dataset into 3 sections and Akash ran the script on Geonames via He should really write a post on how he did all that. Here’s the scripts and the processed data. There were about 40 bad locations in the dataset which were removed.

The output of the reverse geocoding was the country code. I wanted the country names. This is how I learnt about vlookup in MS Excel. I also learnt how to fill all the blanks in a table and how to divide a column by a number. These are not as straightforward as you think. Excel hung up on me as well. Lot of times. Remember making everything a table helps a lot when doing Excel operations. I used the country name list from here(It’s missing SS=South Sudan). Finally everything seemed ready. Now all I needed was a good scatterplot example to borrow 😉

A quick search of mbostock’s d3 gallery and I located a scatterplot that I could use. It was simple to understand. I promptly hacked the example to meet my demands. I learnt a bit of d3 along the way.
With the final changes all done, I was done with ‘Meteorites: Earth Impact’. In 3 days I learnt such a lot. It was indeed a wicked journey.

Without anymore delay, Ladies and Gentlemen I present to you ‘Meteorites: Earth Impact’.

Update: The visualization got ‘Staff Picked’ on Visually. #proud

2012: The Year of Online Learning.

If you have been an avid reader of Hacker News these past few months, you would have noticed a host of startups launching around the idea of teaching learning to an everyday person. Codecademy was one of the first out of the stable. The people of Codecademy introduced many of us to the world of Javascript for the first time. I was overjoyed about Codecademy but eventually realised from their usability that it was intended at a reasonably computer literate user. Their problem was that the forgiveness that they employed when teaching the programming novices was not very intuitive. I dont consider myself to be the dumbest guy out there but i was befuddled by the fact that their UI was not responding to an answer that was right but not in the way they had instructed us to code. Still they are getting there slowly, CodeYear was a great way of pushing ahead[1].

At around the same time, the Stanford online classes started off. Prof. Thurn who started the  ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class’ gave up his tenure at Stanford and started a new online university called Udacity. I was not very interested in the first session but now i have enrolled for a class[2]. Lets see how that goes. MIT also decided to jump onto the bandwagon.

Then the trickle turned into a torrent which flooded the internet. Some of the websites i came across include

RubymonkTeamTreehouse, tryBloc, tryRuby, RubyLearning
Clojure: tryClojure
Web Design/Development:Beginner’s Guide, TeamTreehouse, Codepupil.
Design: Method of Action

I also came across these two Reddit pages filled with resources. And last but not the least, I love the work Salman Khan is doing with his Khan Academy.

If you know of any interesting learning resources, do let me know in the comments below and i shall update this post.

Update: Another list of Learning resources includes Coursera.

Update 2: Knight Center is offering courses in journalism (They have courses on information visualization). Also adding Stanford’s Venture Lab.

Update 3: Now there’s uReddit, where anyone can set up a MOOC.


  1.  Codecademy recently started out CodeYear to get more people to start learning. NYC Mayor Bloomberg is one among the many who has vouched to code this year.
  2. I have signed on for the ‘Human Computer Interaction‘ class which will start on 30th January 2012. Check out the entire Winter semester course list here.