Brilliant Data Visualization Brings The History Of Hip Hop To Life
Rapid advances and innovations in digital information technology have given us the means to gather data and produce new information on a massive scale. How do we bring this information to people in ways that are both informative and easy to comprehend? Sophisticated data visualization is one solution to this problem but constructing data visualizations that effortlessly present complex and detailed data to the viewer is not an easy task. Matt Daniels has combined several different types of data in an interactive timeline covering the history of hip hop that is both easy to understand and wildly entertaining. It’s a brilliant example of data visualization done the right way.
The timeline charts Billboard’s hip hop singles chart from 1989 to 2015. The core of the visualization is a side scrolling timeline that slides through a month in about 12 seconds. Singles are represented by a circular picture of the artist coupled with the name of the track located on the right-hand side of the timeline. The circle moves up and down in sync with the track as it moves through the top ten positions on Billboard’s chart. Only singles that made it to the top five are represented on the timeline.
A sample from the song at the top of the chart plays while the timeline scrolls. When a song is dethroned from the number one spot it crossfades into its successor. The result is an almost continuous mix of number one hits. The sound samples were scraped from Spotify and there are occasional dead spots if Spotify did not have a particular song when the timeline was built. Songs that stayed on the top of the chart for only a week flash in and out of the mix while songs that maintained their hold on number one play longer. For example, Notorious B.I.G.s One More Chance plays for about 25 seconds while the timeline scrolls through the two months it remained at number one during the summer of 1995.
The 26 years covered by the timeline are laid out in a line under the scroll. Mousing over the years brings up a short list of artists who were popular at that time. This is useful if you can’t remember exactly when an artist you liked was popular. The line of years is also equipped with a slider that can be used to start the timeline scrolling anywhere you like. It’s difficult to use the slider to zero in on a specific point in time, however, because the line of years is too short to comfortably hold the 312 months of hip hop that are packed into the timeline. This isn’t a major problem as the “price” you pay for starting too early is listening to more music as the timeline scrolls up to the time you want.
If you see a single you liked rocketing up the chart and then stalling before it reaches number one, you can still listen to it. Clicking on the circle that represents a track brings up a second screen that lists up to 20 tracks by the artist. The soundtrack will then cycle through that list starting with the song you clicked.
Mousing over an artist’s circle brings up last.fm‘s entry about the artist on the left-hand side of the timeline. The entry will remain on the screen while the timeline scrolls until you mouse over another artist’s circle. This is useful because some the entries are too long to read while the track you moused over stays alive on the chart.
The timeline effortlessly immerses the viewer in the history of hip hop. When you look under the hood, however, the volume of data feeding the visualization is staggering. The timeline is built on 1352 weeks of data provided by Emily White and Trevor Anderson from Billboard’s hip hop charts. The top five songs from each of those weeks is tagged and their chart position is tracked until the song exits the top ten. The chart tracks roughly 2000 songs in total.
Almost every one of those songs is linked to a picture of the artist and a music sample. In addition, almost every artist is linked to their entry at last.fm and to a list of their singles that can be played in a mix independently of the scrolling timeline. The only thing that seems to be missing are links to online music vendors so people can make spur-of-the-moment purchases of the music they’re hearing. Someone selling music online might want to look into doing something about that.
You have to experience the hip hop timeline to fully appreciate how good it is . Be forewarned, however. The timeline is catnip for people who know and enjoy this music. You may find the rest of your day lost to an awesome nostalgia trip. If you haven’t paid much attention to hip hop but you watched Straight Outta Compton and it opened your ears to rap, the timeline is a terrific introduction to the music. If you are interested in data visualization, treat the timeline like a master class in design. If your ears are closed and you won’t listen to hip hop, hang in there. Daniels is working on a new timeline for Billboard’s Hot 100 that goes all the way back to the 1940s.
Kevin Murnane covers science & tech for Forbes. You can find more of his writing about these and other topics at The Info Monkey and Tuned In To Cycling. Follow on [email protected]