The world’s population in 1880 people per pixel (or 4878 digits)

A few years ago I came up with the idea of FatFonts, a special kind of digits that encode quantity both in the shape of the digit (as in regular numbers) and in the amount of ink or black pixels (the area of the glyph is proportional to the number it represents). I then worked with Uta Hinrichs and Sheelagh Carpendale to develop the idea and publish a paper.

Numbers in Cubica FatFonts

The numbers 19, 28, 37, 46, 55, 64, 73, 82 and 91 represented in Cubica FatFont.

Although a quirky idea, FatFonts seem to have a bunch of usages… for example, they are convenient when you want to provide a table of numbers that is also a graphical representation. This allows the viewer (or the reader) to very quickly capture the overal distribution, but also to go in and read the specific number, which they can then use to compare to other numbers (in the FatFonts table or in their heads).

FatFonts are great in maps, and that is why Uta and I set out to create a poster that would give a picture of one of the most pressing issues of our time: world population. Thanks to SICSA (and our wonderful helpers Carson, Jed, and Michael), we got the time, money and support to develop the idea. The result is a poster that represents the population of the world using FatFonts.

An overview of the FatFonts poster of the world population.

An overview of the FatFonts poster of the world population.

The poster is made using an equal area projection of the world, and it represents data collected by CIESIN and others. Each grid in the main map, which represents an area equivalent to 200 by 200 km has a 2-level digit FatFont digit in it. That way we can know, with a precision of 100,000 people, how many humans live there. Naturally, the precision is as good as the data (and these are projections using 2005 data, the newest available), but it gives you a really good idea of where people really are. In fact, the map is so mesmerising that I have learnt a lot from it by just spending a lot of time looking at it. It is not only the distribution, but also the numbers. Obviously I am biased, but I strongly believe that seeing the numbers gives you a lot more than just representing density with colours, in part because colour scales are very arbitrary.

Since the number of dark pixels of a FatFont digit is proportional to the number that we are representing, we can calculate how many people each black pixel represents. For an A1 poster in the main area of the map at 600 pixels per inch, each pixel represents approximately 1880 people! FatFonts with the orange background are up by an order of magnitude, so there the ink of a pixel represents approx 18,000 people.

The South Eastern Mediterranean population is concentrated in the Nile delta (Egypt) and Palestine and Israel.

The South Eastern Mediterranean population is concentrated in the Nile delta (Egypt) and Palestine and Israel.

We partnered with Axis maps, who make wonderful typographic maps of cities, and we are selling them here. All the profits will be reinvested in research (e.g., helping pay research internships for students). We think that they are a wonderful present and that they are really fun to look at and discuss.

To give you a better feeling of the map, and because we like to try our new stuff, we have taken some Lytro images of the poster that you can explore in this gallery.

Books for a good PhD start

A research career is a complex career. It involves many skills and knowledge that are not necessarily related to the specific topic that you choose to investigate.

In my experience, students just before of at the beginning of their PhD research (at the beginning of their research careers) are often quite disconnected from the actual skills and background that will make them successful. This is why I try to supply my students with some of the knowledge that, sooner or later, they will need to apply. To help with this, I have selected four books that all my students get at the beginning of their PhDs (to read in their free time). Here is the selection, and why I selected each book. Note: I’d love you to share other books you think are valuable at this stage (use the comments below).


content1. The Craft of Research (Booth, Colomb, Williams)

Science/Engineering students often think that writing is the boring part of the job. Most of them realise that they have to do it, and some might even know that they have to do it well to be successful. However, telling a student that they have to get better at writing is not the best approach. In the best case, they already know that they have to do it, and in the worse, they might start hating it.

Instead, I like to consider writing (of academic papers and reports) as thinking on paper. It is often not until I have written the last bit of a paper (e.g., the discussion section) that I fully understand the research that I have done, the implications, and the value of it. Of course, the research is mostly already in your mind (and in your code, data, etc), but putting it on paper takes you to the next step: you can communicate it to the world and, perhaps most importantly, to yourself.

And this is what this book is about: setting up questions, understanding the problem, structuring a solution, all mediated through writing. A particular favorite of mine is the bit about making arguments; being able to make a claim and support it with evidence in a convincing way is one of those things that students think they know, but only learn after supervision, much experience and, perhaps, reading this book.

Cover of the book "The Elements of Style" 2. The Elements of Style (Strunk & White)

Once you know why you are writing, you need to know how. Although some authors think that this book might not be as good as everybody else thinks it is, it takes many students out of some of the worst habits in writing, namely:

  • Writing to look smart.
  • Writing without thinking of the reader (e.g., long sentences).
  • Writing to fill in the space (lack of brevity).

Although the grammar advice might be somewhat antiquated and not always completely correct, the rest of the book, in particular the parts about style, helped me significantly improve my writing (although I certainly don’t claim mastery!). I think this book is particularly useful for students who are not native speakers of English and who come from traditions where clarity and brevity is not as central as in the English speaking scientific community (I’m from Spain, and I’m in shock most of the time I have to read or review a thesis in Spanish).

The most important point of the book might be summarised in a quote attributed to Blaise Pascal: If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter. Well, a student should have the time, so the text should be shorter while keeping the crucial information. It takes time and effort, but readers (and markers) will be happier, the world will waste less paper, and the paper/dissertation will be more likely to be read and used by others.

Cover of the book "The A PhD is not enough!" 3. A PhD is not enough! (Feibelman)

Very often students lack context. They might know that they want to do research, they might even know that they like research. But what else is involved? Why would a PhD be useful? What does it get you? Most importantly, what does it NOT get you?

This book might be a bit harsh to start on (sometimes reality is a bit hard), but it provides a nice glimpse on the world of research and highlights much of what really becomes the focus of what you do as a researcher and academic. The bad news is that there is a lot more of politics, strategy, and marketing in this job than what we all expect when we start. The good news is that you can be prepared for it, and might even get to enjoy some of those bits. In any case, and from my personal opinion, being in research is awesome, but it is better to be ready for what it requires from you.

Note: there are other similar/related books about research and academia that are worth mentioning and reading (e.g., this, this, and this), but perhaps not strictly necessary at the beginning of a PhD).

index 4. Getting Things Done (Allen)

So, what is really required from a PhD? Effective work and perseverance. Most people in academia know that you don’t have to be a genius to get a PhD. Gosh, you don’t even have to get the best or most novel ideas. But your ability to work hard, avoid procrastination, and persevere will determine the chances of being successful in your PhD and of being able to take your career further.

Although there is a lot of crap in the self-help and productivity literature, this does not mean that it is better to ignore it all. This book describes my favorite system, and although it is not perfect and I still work really really long hours, it has helped me enormously. This might not be the best system for productivity that there is, or be the best system for everyone, but at least is honest, well explained, and feasible. I’m a fan.

The reality of a PhD is that, if students think they are busy during their undergrads or MSc, the demands on time will only keep increasing. This is certainly true after you have become a doctor. If you don’t like GTD, you better find something else!


Have you come across other books that you think are useful? I’d love to compile a list with your suggestions, and I might even add a book or two to my list!

PhD Studentship on Perceptual Gaze-contingent Displays at St Andrews (with me)

I’m looking for a student to work with me in St Andrews for the next few years (fully funded). The topic is gaze-contingent displays. I’m looking for someone with a Computer Science background that has an interest in perception and visualization, and a big curiosity about human perception and what we can do to enhance it. Please, visit the studentship offer, and send me an e-mail if you are interested! (deadlines for the studentship are soon, so don’t delay!!).

Friday 6th, event with the Library (Shawna’s visit)

The title is: Interaction and Visualisation Technologies in the Library – Open Session, and the idea is to bring together the people at the university that might benefit from data and visualisation support in the library. We’ll have the privilege of listening to Shawna Sadler, who I have worked with in Calgary.

This is the main page of the event.

Workshop on Infrastructure and Design Challenges of Coupled Display Visual Interfaces PPD’12

Please, come to Capri to discuss MDEs with us!

Workshop on Infrastructure and Design Challenges of Coupled Display Visual Interfaces PPD’12
In conjunction with AVI’12, Capri, Italy, May 25, 2012
Following on from the very successful PPD’08 and PPD’10 workshops at previous AVI conferences.

Keywords: Multi-display environments, MDE infrastructure, Coupled Displays, Interaction Techniques

Submission deadline: March 30th
Acceptance notification: April 5th

The objective of PPD’12 is to bring together researchers active in the areas of multi-display user interfaces to share approaches and experiences, identify research and deployment challenges, and envision the next generation of applications that rely on visual interfaces that can spread across multiple displays. Among the possible outcomes of the workshop are a book and a grant application.

TOPICS (including but not restricted to):
-Understanding the design space and identifying factors that influence user interactions in this space
-Developing evaluation strategies to cope with the complex nature of multi-display environments
-Understanding the implications that display is shaped by human activity into an ecological arrangement and thus an ecology
-Ethnography and user studies of visual interfaces relying on coupled displays
-Examples of applications of coupled display interfaces in real-world applications
-Social factors that influence the design of suitable interaction techniques for shared and private displays
-Exploring interaction techniques that facilitate multi-display interfaces
-Novel input mechanisms for both private and public multi-touch devices as part of multi-display environments
-Techniques for supporting input re-direction and distributing information between displays
-SDK/APIs, IDEs, and hardware platforms for the development of coupled display visual interfaces

An increasing number of interactive displays of very different sizes, portability, projectability and form factors are starting to become part of the display ecosystems that we make use of in our daily lives. Displays are shaped by human activity into an ecological arrangement and thus an ecology. Each combination or ecology of displays offer substantial promise for the creation of applications that effectively take advantage of the wide range of input, affordances, and output capability of these multi-display, multi-device and multi-user environments. Although the last few years have seen an increasing amount of research in this area, knowledge about this subject remains under explored, fragmented, and cuts across a set of related but heterogeneous issues. We invite researchers and practitioners interested in the challenges posed by infrastructure and design.

The workshop will be for a full day and structured to provide maximum time for group discussion and brainstorming. Each participant will be expected to be familiar with all position papers (which will be available to them well in advance of the event). The workshop will structured around four sessions (separated by the morning break, lunch and afternoon break). In the first session the participants will briefly introduce themselves and engage in a brainstorm to outline key discussion topics for the two midday sessions. In the second and third session the group will be divided into sub-groups moderated by the workshop organisers to have focused discussions on some of the key topics identified earlier. In the fourth session the group will reconvene to summarise the advances identified in the breakout discussions.

Alan Dix, University of Birmingham/TALIS
Miguel Nacenta, University of St Andrews
Aaron Quigley, University of St Andrews
Tom Rodden, University of Nottingham

The position papers should be prepared according to the ACM SIGCHI Format (2 column, 10 point font size) and should not be longer than four pages. The submissions can present summarizing, on-going or speculative work.

Send submissions before the end of March 30th.
Submissions will be peer reviewed by a international program committee of multi-display and surface computing experts. Submissions do not have to be anonymous.


Dzmitry Aliakseyeu – Philips Research Europe
Simone DJ Barbosa – Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro
Shlomo Berkovsky – NICTA
Alan Dix – University of Birmingham/TALIS
Adrian Friday – University of Lancaster
Rodger Lea – University of British Columbia
Alessio Malizia – Universidad Carlos III de Madrid
Miguel Nacenta – University of St Andrews
Kenton O’Hara – Microsoft Research
Aaron Quigley – University of St Andrews
Stuart Reeves – University of Nottingham
Tom Rodden – University of Nottingham
Michael Rohs – Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Lucia Terrenghi – Google
Frederic Vernier – Université Paris-Sud
Jim Wallace – University of Waterloo