Cat Not Found: The Wonderful World of APIs

Rachel Stuart, a student enrolled in this semester’s ENG 5998 reading group, describes the function of Owen Mundy’s “Cat” site and responds to some assumptions about Data Visualization and Graphics Scripting:

In the era of Edward Snowden and “dickpics” are any of us really surprised to hear that privacy no longer exists? Tech advances make it possible for enormous amounts of information to be collected, stored, and combed through for various purposes, including marketing and – in Owen Mundy’s case – art. We were fortunate to have Professor Mundy in person to talk us through the fundamental functionality of one of his creations: the web site I Know Where Your Cat Lives.

One of the first questions addressed by Mundy was how to define and categorize “big data,” a term that gets bandied about without any real limitation on its qualifications. He asked questions that got us thinking about this quandary: Is it big data when you have so much that it won’t fit on just one machine? Is it big data when it is incomprehensible? Is it big data when you need a tool to sift through it in order for any meaning to be extracted from it? It’s possible that the answer to all of these questions is YES, but Mundy pointed out that this is a relative concern; as time passes and our storage devices advance, big data will be redefined again and again.

But why is big data – or its accessibility – so scary and fascinating? Mundy started down this line of thought when he noticed that a picture of his daughter on Instagram could be “mapped” with the simple click of a button. He discovered that the data for location of Instagram pictures is collected whether or not you choose to have your image mapped, and that this location data is readily available to the average person. (While I say average person, I personally had no idea how this was possible until I attended Mundy’s talk. Perhaps the average technical person or individual with enough curiosity?)

The web site that resulted went viral, and while the subject matter is interesting on its own, two of Mundy’s theoretical approaches to this instructive piece of art likely had a lot to do with its success. First, Mundy insists, art should be able to compete with television (at least his art). Even though he is pointing to a very real, very scary problem in our society, the likelihood that the message will get through to an audience is lessened if the message is couched in a – and I quote – “duh, duh, DUH” – terrifying web page. Second, all people need is one button. Initially, Mundy set up a web page that allowed the user to sort through the cats categorically, but eventually he realized that one button was necessary as there was really only one goal of the site.

Another aspect of Mundy’s work that reveals his interest in the web page’s social impact is that he allows users to remove their cats from the map, even providing a link for the user to up their privacy settings on Instagram and make this sort of breach less likely in the future. This must be working, as over 40,000 cats have been removed. When they are removed, the picture is no longer there, but a signpost is left behind, reminding cat pic surfers that there is a point to all of this. Mundy provokes action with entertainment.

cat not found

An Application Program Interface (API) is a tool that either provides data, functionality, or both – usually both. If you are as confused as I was when I first heard of an API, this is the comb or filter that digs through that big data for you, sorting out what you want to see from the stuff that doesn’t matter. They provide access to big data, but in some cases they limit access. Facebook, for example, gives access to some data, but limits access in many cases (unless you are trying to sell something and want to pay, but that’s a whole other blog post).

Some tools Mundy shared with us:

DPLA – Digital Public Library of America – Check out the apps page, where there are tons of funky API tools for sorting through the big data of the DPLA. You can create your own queries to serve your own needs

Sunlight Foundation – An amazing effort to use APIs and public databases to encourage government transparency.

Give Me My Data – An API that pulls all of the information that Facebook has collected about you, allowing you to keep it and, if you’d like, delete it.

Wikipedia CongressEdits – runs an API on Wikipedia’s most recent edits within the geographical location of the House of Representatives and tweets the results. It is hilarious and also, pretty damning.

I, unfortunately, had to step out to go teach before Professor Mundy really got into using JSFiddle, so if you attended and want to add that information in the comments, I’d really appreciate it. Thank you to Professor Mundy for this amazing learning experience.

RCSDuke

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