This past weekend, in an empty office in downtown Columbus, OH, with the view to the Left, several techie geeks got together to build things in a sandbox. What’d I build? Trees!


Some Context

Following Columbus’ win of the US DOT’s Smart City Competition last year, the tech life in Columbus has been eager for the launch of initiatives to make the home of the Buckeyes a leader in Smart City technologies. That wait was finally ended this past weekend as Smart Columbus held a Smart City Hackathon to dive into a mix of new and existing ideas that the tech community can drive forward with.

To begin building an ecosystem around data, Smart Columbus created an Integrated Data Exchange (IDE), a.k.a. the “Sandbox”, to serve as a repository for innovative teams to pull Smart City data from, to build tools around, and to add more data-sets into.

Over the course of a weekend at the corner of High St. and State St. a number of designers, developers, and hustlers filled that empty floor with their dreams, and went to work in that sandbox.


Our Team Built a Forest.

Data visualization as foliage

So this project actually stemmed from something I built with a team last year at MIT’s “Reality, Virtually” Hackathon. To read my post for that, click here. To summarize, the idea was to take the layout of folder systems (i.e. Hard Drives, cloud storage, git hub repositories, etc.) and visualize those into trees. It started as those tiny color-line trees at the bottom of the image above, and in my free time I’ve played with those a bit to get the trees to represent actual data (green line-tree to the right).

After finding more inspiration in an audio-book called “The Hidden Life of Trees”, I have been hooked on the thought of visualizing networks of data as the connected root systems of forests — whereas actual forest not only share nutrients between trees, but can even pass messages to each other. This being such a fundamental concept in nature, I find it might just help us wrap our heads around all of this data if we put it into a form we’re very familiar with.

The Hidden Life of Trees

After a quick pitch, and several discussions thereafter, a team began to form around the idea, and lots of discussion quickly ensued. Almost immediately the whole data-network idea was stripped. (Ahh, my baby!) Charles Campbell, an Entrepreneur on the team, saw this as a tool that could be used to make sense of many of the complexities of government spending. Before we knew it we were talking about the far out branches of government spending, and how important it was to make that easily understandable to somebody who doesn’t have a background in crunching numbers.


In Virtual Reality, Money Grows on Trees

After searching through the annual budget for the City of Columbus, we were only able to get a basic breakdown of each Department with the data we found. Then came a buddy named Dean Allemang, who wrote a book on the Semantic Web, and who’s an expert in sorting through large data-sets online (you can see his own article on the hackathon here). Dean introduced us to the Ohio Checkbook and Data.World, which are sites that serve as repositories for public sets of data similar to the “Sandbox”, but much larger.

After browsing through the different levels of data, we settled on the State of Ohio’s Annual Budget, as the data we would comb through and cultivate into beautiful (okay, primitive) tree structures. The rings on the image below are to help highlight each layer out where the spending records break out into their respective categories, and the thickness of each branch reflects the portion of the budget that was allocated for each category.

One of the main tasks was creating a method to allocate and position every color coded branch for the 2016 annual budget, we decided to start digging up the budgets for past years, and ended with a row of trees outlining the state’s budget for the past 8 years. Finally, to finish this off we were able to get these trees working in a 3D world that is accessible on the web!


A row of trees outlining the state’s budget for the past 8 years


For some time you can go to (just don’t use www), and see a version of what we created. [Note: the actual foliage and scenery in the background will not show up as it takes up a lot of processing power to render those textures]


The Brand

Sharon Santino

Google describes Bonsai as the art of growing ornamental, artificially dwarfed trees or shrubs, and in Japanese culture, Bonsai is known as a form of Art. It takes great attention and care to curate the healthy growth of a Bonsai tree, and Big Data is something that can easily grow out of control if it’s not managed very well, so this makes for a perfect analogy that we can turn into a reality through immersive, 3D visualizations.

Luckily we had Sharon Santino, who whipped together an aweome slide deck to capture this mentality. Many of the attendees and judges seemed to resonate with this approach a lot, and after reviewing all of the teams we were selected as the winner for the Best Use of Data!
Moving Forward

Right now the seed has been planted in the local tech community. As this thing opens up I look forward to branching out into the strong network of innovators in Columbus, and making more strong connections. And as it develops, like Elon Musk’s second latest company – I look forward to boring underneath existing infrastructure, and defining a new way to navigate the world (of data).


Source: Medium