Benjamin Fry

 

Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1975
Lives in Boston

Valence, 1999

acg.media.mit.edu/people/fry/valence/

Networked software, computer, screen

Benjamin Fryís data visualization software Valence creates visual constructions from large bodies of information that are both interesting and help us understand them in new ways. Static methods for representing data--charting, graphing, sorting, etc.--have been established over centuries. Since the advent of digital technologies, the dynamic representation of large data sets has become a field of scientific and aesthetic research. In Valence, individual pieces of information are represented visually according to their interactions with each other. Valence can be used for visualizing almost anything, from the contents of a book to website traffic, or for comparing different texts or data sources. The resulting visualization changes over time as it responds to new data. Instead of providing statistical information, Valence furnishes a qualitative feel for the perturbations in the data and builds a self-evolving map driven by patterns.

In the 2002 Whitney Biennial, Valence is used for comparing the genomes of the human, fruitfly, and mouse. Several 'genome' projects are now nearing states of completion, and for biologists, a primary use of the data is to search for a gene sequence and see if it is found in the genome of another organism. If the sequence is found, it is then possible--based on what is known about the sequence as it is found in the other organism--to arrive at conclusions about the function of that particular sequence.

The Biennial piece is a visual representation of the algorithm (called BLAST) used for genome searches. The genome of an organism is made up of thousands of genes (34,000 for the human, 20,000 for the mouse, and 14,000 for the fruitfly). A gene is made up of a sequence of As, Cs, Gs, Ts that averages 1000 to 2000 letters a piece. In order to handle this amount of information, the BLAST algorithm breaks each sequence of letters into 9 letter sets.

In the Valence visualization, each dot on the screen represents a unique nine-letter set. The most common sets are arranged on the outside, the less common towards the center. A sequence from one of the organisms is scrolling across the top of the screen. The same sequence can be seen moving through the space as a ribbon of text, wrapping itself between the points that it connects. For each set of nine letters found in the sequence, an arc is drawn between the setís point in the space and the point representing the next set of nine letters. For most nine letter sets, there are three points, corresponding to the three organisms. The three points are connected by the three lines on each arc, one for each of the organisms being represented--the outer line is the human, the inner one is the fruitfly. By using a trackball, users can input a sequence for a search by dragging across the lines of A, C, G, T at the bottom of the screen. This will draw another ribbon that weaves through the space to highlight the sequence of selected letters.

Fryís project is based on the premise that the best way to understand a large body of information--whether it is a 200,000 word book, usage data from a website, financial transactions, or genomes--is to provide a feel for general trends and anomalies in the data by presenting a qualitative slice of the informationís structure. Valence functions as an aesthetic "context provider," setting up relationships between data elements that might not be immediately obvious, and that exist beneath the surface of what we usually perceive.


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