5 Questions

Data Crunching the World Cup

August 21, 2014          

Episode Summary

In this episode of The Digital Life, we launch our new weekly format, with founder Dirk Knemeyer's return to the co-host chair. We also take a little journey into the back story behind the data rich information visualization and long form feature article, "The 10 Best Nations in World Cup History: 77 Teams Over 84 Years", which is currently running on the Involution Studios Web site. The product of 200 hours of research into the World Cup soccer data, this is a comprehensive view of one of the most important sporting tournaments in the world.

Jon:
Welcome to episode 65 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett. With me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Hey, Jon. How are you doing today?

Jon:
I’m doing great today. Ask me why.

Dirk:
Why?

Jon:
Because we’re starting a new Digital Life. We’re evolving the show yet again. I think this is our third evolution since the show started five years ago. It started with you and me doing an awful lot of work figuring out how to make a UX and design related podcast that would capture people’s imaginations. We came up with a whole bunch of different segments. I remember that first year very clearly. We’ve learned a lot of lessons. You and I did it for a couple of years. Then when Erik Dahl came on board, he and I did it for an additional two years together. We changed up the format slightly.

Here we are today in year five, we’re evolving yet again which I’m very excited about. The format today is and for the foreseeable future, we’re going back to the weekly show. There will be a little pressure on us to talk about interesting things every week. There’s such a wide array of things happening in UX design in the news, in infovis, I don’t think we’ll have any shortage of topics.

Dirk:
No question about it. I know we’ve talked a lot of things we want to cover. Just based on the things going on in the world of technology as well as things that we’re involved with, the funnel is going to keep filling up, I’m really looking forward to giving some good regular content out for our listeners here.

Jon:
I think one of the things to highlight is that you are coming back as a co-host which I couldn’t have a better person to be my partner in crime on this. I think I’ve had a couple of years to practice my radio presence. Now maybe I can keep up with you.

Dirk:
You always kept up with me. It’s fun to be back and doing this with you. I had a great time before. As a listener when Erik was on, I mean, Erik’s wonderful. I’m sorry that he had other things to move on to. I’m really happy that that’s allowed me to jump back in the chair and dig in with you, my friend.

Jon:
Listeners, if you have interesting things that you would like us to talk in the show, I’d like to make the show a little bit more interactive. We talk about the show a lot on Twitter and occasionally on LinkedIn. Please tweet at us. I’m @jonfollett. You can send us topics. Things of importance in digital design in UX that you might want us to dig in. Because it’s a weekly show, we’ll be able to turn around content pretty quickly. If you have some great ideas you want to share, we’re certainly open to suggestion.

Dirk:
Yeah, you can even send those to the Involution Studio’s Twitter account to, @goinvo. It would get to us as well.

Jon:
Let’s dig into our first topic of the new format which is a little bit selfish, maybe, but also hopefully interesting to our audience. We have what we are calling feature articles which we’re launching at the GoInvo website. Dirk is a research hound. What that means is when he gets into something, he gets in not halfway but all the way in. When he’s crunching data for instance, I know that he pulls from every data source he can possibly imagine and takes a look at things for information design, information graphics, et cetera. Dirk has had a ongoing obsession with the World Cup which just occurred a month ago. What he did was, in my opinion, nothing short of amazing in taking a systemic view of World Cup history from both the data perspective and from the historical sort of narrative perspective and put that together for us. Dirk, to start his off, could you frame up the feature articles that we’re launching. Maybe give us some detail about that.

Dirk:
Sure. When I dove back into Invo full time about a year ago, you and I and the rest of the leadership team, we’re talking about what are the things that we could that would be good for the company from a marketing perspective but that would also really, really be good reflections of our broader thinking, our broader contributions to the world beyond the typical stuff. We knew and we had on our website, for example case studies, really nice stories about great work that we’ve done for interesting companies. That’s very important of course for sales and very important in general for any business. All of our competitors are doing that too. We can argue about the merits of different client lists and case studies all we want but for people finding the site and looking at the different companies, superficially, they look similar. The question was what can we do that’s different that helps us from a business sales marketing standpoint but is also going and getting into the things that really make us tick, that really get us excited. The things that don’t necessarily align with software design and the things that we’re working on and doing. They do, even other topics that are different, they do reflect what we bring to the work.

Jon, you used the word research hound, I might add that to my little Twitter bio. It’s those kind of skills. I mean, in the work that I did on the World Cup feature which we’ll talk about in a minute, that was over a month of research. I mean, I put in somewhere upwards of 200 hours into studying the World Cup and other aspects of international soccer and then went through a whole interpretative process of from that research collecting a lot of data, processing the data, interpreting it and translating it into a story, translating it into a viewpoint about this topic. In the case of the World Cup, because it’s sports, maybe it’s a little bit more statistical than some other times we might choose to do things but it’s really reflection of for myself, specifically but really for how we in general do design and really take on big topics what that looks like and what the output of that can look like.

But from the standpoint of wanting to deliver really good interesting content, for me, one of the inspirations was “Snow Fall”. That was a piece that was published by the New York Times, I don’t know, a year and a half, two years ago at this point. There was a wonderful use of multimedia in an online format. I mean, at the moment it was published, it was really sort of the highest, in my opinion, it was sort of the highest manifestation of that moments of pulling together technology and media and what was possible in sort of the perfect balance of informative and elegance. I still think it’s great, Snowfall. If you just Google “Snow Fall”, it shows up. That was a real inspiration here. We came up, as a team we came up with the idea for these feature stories where we’re going to bring media together. We’re going to bring ideas together and try and tell a very rich story in a way that to some degree will be written but there’s also a lot of visual stuff going on there as well. We have a really sort of neat interactive visualization with the World Cup piece but getting into other media as well. In the future we’ll explore more video, explore some more other things. Half of this, ish, will have nothing to do with software design or the things that we get paid to do. Hopefully they speak to the spirit and capability of who we are and what we do and reinforce our ability to do smart stuff.

Jon:
Yeah, I think all that’s correct. I do think as a studio in sort of the broadest sense, gives us some opportunities to explore topics in all their richness whether it’s doing an art installation at the studio among which we had three this summer happen. Or it’s more narrative piece, a more research base piece like you’ve been working on for the website. Hopefully I’ll be doing those very soon as well. There’s this intersection of art and science and technology here at the studio and part of that process is the exploration process.

I’m not sure of the things that we’re learning from putting together these articles but I can tell you that the techniques, sort of the level of detail and excellence and the totality of these pieces is definitely going to cycle back to all of the software design we do whether it’s for enterprise or health care or what have you. I do think we’re very lucky in that sense and that we can have these internal and external reflections of the intersection of art and science and hopefully generate stuff that’s also very interesting to other people as well.

Dirk:
Absolutely.

Jon:
I think that’s part of the reason why I enjoy so much these opportunities at Involution. With that sort of preamble, let’s talk a little bit about our first feature which is the World Cup. Dirk, why don’t you give us some idea of both the data you crunched and that’s present now in our interactive information visualization as well as the analytical piece that our company’s at.

Dirk:
Sure, sure. The origin of the World Cup piece was, as we were talking about features and sort of looking at an editorial calendar, one of the goals is to provide things that are timely and to tie into things that people care about and are sort of broader cultural events. The World Cup seems like a really obvious one. Happily for me, maybe three to five years ago, I started to take an interest in international soccer. I didn’t put a lot of time into research until I started working on this feature but I had just slowly been consuming more and more information, sort of gradually becoming and enthusiast, let’s say. I certainly wouldn’t call myself an expert.

When the feature, came time to do the feature, I didn’t know what I was going to do frankly. I just knew I had to produce something for the World Cup to support our strategy and the things that we’re doing. I just dove in. The way I started was fully quantitative. I did read a book called Inverting the Pyramid which is interesting. It provides some framework for the history of the sport that’s more tactical though than specific to the World Cup. It’s much broader. Then I dove into the competition. What I did is I opened a Google Doc, a spreadsheet. I literally copied the result of every game ever played in the World Cup and all of the top level data for it.

Starting in 1930, I would put Uruguay, put Argentina, and I would put win, one in the win columns, zero in the lost, zero in the draw, this many goals for, this many goals against. I would do that for both teams in every game ever played. That data is already available. I was only able to put it in because it was already there on the internet. The process of putting it into my own structure really aided with my learning, really aided with my sort of global understanding of things as I went through that process. At some point as I was working on the World Cup stuff, my focus broadened. I said, to really tell the story of international football, it’s about more than the World Cup.

I first went and did the whole history of Olympic soccer. Cell by cell by hundreds of thousands of cell, putting that data. I said, “Well, probably I should look at the South American Championships,” which has been going since 1916. I did all of those. Then I said I should look at the Eurocup which has been going since 1960. I did all of those. Before long, I did North America. I had done Africa. I had done everything. In the process, I was just learning a great deal about the arcs and the history of all of these different international football teams that had competed in the World Cup as well as in other venues.

At some point during all of this work, I started to tell stories. I started to start writing and saying what’s interesting here, what do people not know. For a little while, I was kind of veering sort of far beyond the scope of the World Cup. I can write this really crazy comprehensive history of this sport, the international competition of this sport. It turned out to be too much. What ended up happening, as I was sort of editing and editing and editing, was coming up with two things that sit next to each other. One is information visualization, allowing people to see the history.

I sort of qualitatively made some distinctions in terms of how well each nation perform each year which allowed to come up with a quantitative rating at the end and also visually show how the fortunes of these nations changed over time. Then next to that, I did my opinion on the top 10 nations in World Cup history. I wrote, I don’t know, semi long form pieces on them. Some like Hungary, their histories aren’t that impressive, sort of at the bottom of the top 10 whereas Brazil and Germany are pages and pages of information. Then picked, “Here’s the best team. Here’s the best players in the history of each of these top 10 nations,” and also rolled up the stats of the nations across all of the World Cups as well.

I did all of this research. Much of it, they went way beyond what finally came out in the end. It distilled down to a visualization too that people can play with interactively online and then just a story of, “Hey, these are the 10 best teams.” Here’s why and sort of here’s their history in the competition.

Jon:
Yeah, I think all the research really shines through in the piece which as you mentioned earlier was inspired by that Snowfall layout that the New York Times produced. The reason I’m mentioning that again is because there’s all sorts of photos and info biz that’s a part of this that it really makes it an immersive experience when you’re viewing it on the website. If you’re jonesing for your World Cup fix, like if you finish watching the tournament and you’re like, “Ah, I’m so sad this is over.” You might want to take a statistical bath in this piece that you got up on the site right now. Each piece will be coming out in a two-increment. The World Cup piece is up there right now and then we’ll have some really exciting new stuff to announce in the coming weeks in the podcast as well so stay tuned for that.

Dirk, what else do you want to mention today for our listeners who might be interested in communicating with us or for the duration of the show going forward?

Dirk:
We’re really seeing the show, at this point, as part of a bigger publishing effort. We recently redesigned the website and we’ve put together a pretty ambitious content plan where we’re looking to regularly publish meaningful things to our, I call it blog, because that makes it more clear what I’m talking about, but to our website. We have columns planned that will run every week on different topics. These will be more traditional from a standpoint of falling into the things that we’re doing as a business, not necessarily things like this World Cup piece. We’re focused on interesting content. I mean, we’ll still erratically have things on there about essentially press release type of stuff.

What we’re talking about is three plus articles every week that are sort of interesting to anyone who cares about software design or creative businesses, modern workplaces, innovation strategy. We’re kind of all in on this. The podcast is a part of that. We want to come on here and take in more adept things to maybe are talked about on the website. Me and Jon can riff on it and disagree with it or have conversations with me about it and vice versa. Just really tease these things out and really make an investment in the things we’re thinking and saying and doing so that we can share them with you and maybe take those conversations even further and get you guys involved too.

Jon:
All right. Listeners, remember while you’re listening to our show, you can follow along with all the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s with just one L in thedigitalife. Go to the page for this episode. We’re including a transcript and links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. It’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. The World Cup piece is up there. Please let us know what you think. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter. That’s @dknemeyer. Email me, Dirk@goinvo.com or read me at Dirk.Knemeyer.com.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 65 of the Digital Life. Our premier episode of the new format. We’re looking forward to seeing you next time. For Dirk Knemeyer, see you soon.

Dirk:
Goodnight.

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Jon Follett
@jonfollett

Dirk Knemeyer
@dknemeyer

Credits

Co-Host & Producer

Jonathan Follett @jonfollett

Co-Host & Founder

Dirk Knemeyer @dknemeyer

Minister of Agit-Prop

Juhan Sonin @jsonin

Audio Engineer

Michael Hermes

Technical Support

Eric Benoit@ebenoit

Original Music

Ian Dorsch @iandorsch

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