By Michael Drapa, with additional reporting courtesy of University of Chicago Magazine
Image courtesy of Eric Fischer

I think what I’m doing that appeals to people is telling them things they already know but on a larger scale.”
—Eric Fischer
AB’95

Much like the pointillist paintings of Seurat, the “visualizations” of Eric Fischer, AB’95, require the viewer to step back and ponder the bigger picture.

Composed of data plots instead of oil dots, Fischer’s vivid maps of race, traffic, tourism, and crime across the world have drawn international acclaim — each saying something different about ethnicity, commerce, and travel.

His work reveals patterns in data that most observers miss. But it also has won praise for its beauty and elegance.

“I’m pretty astounded by the reaction my work has gotten,” says Fischer. “It’s great when people consider stuff I make to be interesting to look at.”

In his latest project, “See something or say something,” Fischer maps the locations from which people in 35 international cities write tweets and where they post photographs to Flickr — while the United States and Europe lit up in blue and orange, the outlines of other continents are vaguely discernable against the black canvas.

Lauded by the New York Times and art critics, Fischer even traveled to New York City’s Museum of Modern Art this summer for the opening of “Talk to Me,” an exhibition on communication between people and objects. Yet the 38-year-old programmer, who works on mobile phone software at Google, is uncomfortable calling himself an artist, let alone a cartographer.

“I don’t know if it’s just imposter syndrome or what,” says Fischer humbly, “but I think most of what is interesting is inherent in the data rather than my presentation of it.”

Originally a math major at UChicago, Fischer “hit the wall” in his second quarter of complex analysis. He then switched to linguistics, a field which Fischer notes grew up alongside computer science in the 1950s. Both fields serve him well in his work, which excels in visually showing how people communicate and travel—which tells a unique story in itself.

“If you’re looking at a big table of numbers, it doesn’t tell you anything,” he says. “But if you can plot the numbers and how fast things move from one location to the other, you can sort of see the patterns of the world.”

Unique look at world, communities

Fischer first gained attention with his “Geotaggers World Atlas,” which showed the most popular locations (geotags) where people took photographs in international cities, as recorded by Flickr and Picasa.

Readers flocked to Fischer’s atlas after the Flickr Blog pointed to his work. After readers called them tourism maps, Fischer applied colors to the maps, with the results ringing true to cities’ reputations — tourist and local areas seemed spot on.

Fischer followed up that project with a look at race and ethnicity data based on Census figures. Fischer built on the work of cartographer Bill Rankin, but using a program he wrote himself, Fischer’s visualizations of 108 U.S. cities showed how race neighborhood borders were sharply drawn between whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.

Bloggers again embraced Fischer’s set of images on Flickr, which eventually reached Time magazine’s blog, among others.

“I think what I’m doing that appeals to people is telling them things they already know but on a larger scale,” he told the Magazine. “Everybody knows how their neighborhood and maybe how their cities work, but being able to affirm the patterns they see and broaden them to a larger scope than they can observe, that’s probably the appeal.”

Inspiration came from stacks of Regenstein

Fischer’s interest in maps began in the basement stacks of Regenstein Library. While looking up the origins of the typewriter keyboard layout for fun, he found historical books of Chicago transit maps, which led to his hobby of collecting old transportation maps, relics, and artifacts, many from the San Francisco Bay area, where he now lives in Oakland.

“I originally started posting maps that were mostly transportation plans from the past,” says Fischer. But as far as his current work, Fischer says availability of data steers him to most projects.

For the “See something, say something” project, Fischer made repeated requests to Flickr to retrieve lists of geotagged photos that were posted in particular 30-minute intervals, and spent two months connected to Twitter's streaming API to receive a sampling of the geotagged tweets that were posted during that time. He then wrote a program that color-coded the largest clusters of tweets and photos.

Fischer was struck by cities that had previously shown little Flickr usage but now had heavy Twitter usage, like Moscow and especially Jakarta. “It's also kind of astounding to be able to make maps like this for Moscow from social media postings, not all that many years after a time when street maps of Moscow were a closely-guarded state secret and communication technologies as basic as typewriters were kept from the general public.”

As far as future projects, Fischer says he’ll go where the data takes him — but does admit one concern.

“I worry about the Dark Ages that will come if the power ever goes out. There’s the potential to lose a huge chunk of information. Paper can last for centuries, even if you neglect it, but if you’re not constantly vigilant about keeping data, it’s just gone.”

Once again, Fischer makes us see the big picture.

Originally published on October 17, 2011.