Nicholas Felton

Nicholas Felton spoke first at Eyeo this morning and told us what ended up being a beautiful, romantic story.

Nicholas tracks the data of his own days and turns them into annual reports.  What routes does he walk?  How often does he take public transport?  Is he a good gardener?  How many miles does he travel in a year? (This may include miles from Grand Theft Auto).  His average speed for the year is just over four mph.

From this work he’s come up with a methodology: ask a question, research the answer, wrangle the data, edit and design.  He finds the first 3 the most fascinating.

Nicholas feels that audience interest rises with creator pain, and that the story becomes more interesting the more stubborn the data is.  Once we counted the appearance of names of the German Bauhaus movement to track their influence at the time, over time.

I gave out cards and asked people to give feedback on the time they met with me.  It included things like what I ate, etc.  I made a spreadsheet and got the nugget – the total number of vegetables consumed in 2009.  I wanted other people to tell me what my personality was like and how it changed over the year.  When you ask other people to tell you what your mood was, you get a lot of nonsense.  I took a page from aaron koblin’s book and asked Amazon’s mechanical turk to rate these words between happy and sad, and extroverted and introverted.  That resulted in ratings.  And my average temperament in 2009 was swell.  I was 73.9% happy.  And I was classified as somewhere in between introverted and extroverted.

This simple project has grown since I started it.  Now I get annual reports that other people make and send me.  These Feltron projects have been adopted by math classes to help students learn statistics and how to make charts and graphs, and talk about the numbers that are important to them. This led to a company I founded called Daytum.  The idea is it’s wide open, you can create a system for tracking anything you want from milles run to dogparks. To record numbers as frictionlessly as possible.

This leads to the most recent annual report.  The first time I dealt with someone else’s data.  He passed away last year before I had a chance to do anything with these documents.  He showed me his passports, encapsulating 50 years of travel.  He shoed me his naturalization certificate from 1948, his apprenticeship, a contract… really fascinating on a bunch of levels.  He was part of the kindertransport in 1939, German Jewish children to England.  His father was killed in a concentration camp.

His brother posited that he was in the CIA because he would travel places after a bomb went off.  I’d never known that he was in Vietnam during the Vietnam war and still don’t know why.  I found interesting stuff in his things, like aerial photos of bridges.  I found these lists that he made of everywhere he worked, or where he lived and when he’d gone traveling.   A newspaper clipping of the best movines of 2003 where he had marked off all the movies he’d seen.  His pocket calendars, pretty complete. They were really speaking to me.  And then I found an EKG – for someone who likes charts and graphs, this was his heartbeat.  I decided to gather up this stuff to make sense of it.

I went through his calendars and put it all in spreadsheets and tagged it all.  He was much more rigorous when he was traveling.  Receipts with location and time.  I could tag his location to a random place in England where he fueled up.  Felton showed a graph of the eighties where as his father’s work obligations decreased, his family time and travel time increased.  He’d collected hundreds of blank postcards.  I marked down these locations.  I had 50 years worth of postcards he’d received, each with his address on it as his address changed.  I made a map of the places he lived in the Bay Area.  I wanted the maps in the report to be memory maps.

And then there were the slides.  I put a lot of work into trying to figure out what was going on in these photos (he shows some remarkably beautiful photographs).  He made random guesses about where something might be (looks like a job for crowdsourcing… but Nicholas researched them all on his own).  But finally he decided with the most stubborn of the photos he would put them online.  So I did, and different people recognized different aspects of the photo, and it took about a day, but it turned out this was one of the first hotels for tourists in Taiwan.  Another photo was identified by reocognizing yellow headlights as being distinctly French and then Googling concrete church towers in France to find the location.

My idea that the shape of the continents might come out through his travels really proved true (Nicholas shows a map of all the spots where he could locate his father throughout the course of his life).  Finally I came up with this index.  Not a scorecard, but movies he’d watched or restaurants I could say he’d visited.  We had a memorial for him in April where I gave this to his friends.  I was a little nervous about the response, whether they would understand it.  I was pleasantly surprised.  They really did find those touchstone moments that really connected them to my father.