Art, Data Visualization, Maps

If San Francisco Crime were Elevation

I’ve been playing with different ways of representing data (see my previous night lights example) and I decided to venture into 3D representations. I’ve used a full year of crime data for San Francisco from 2009 to create these maps. The full dataset can be download from the city’s DataSF website.

A view from above

This view shows different types of crime in San Francisco viewed directly from above. The sun is shining from the east, as it would during sunrise.


I love how some of the features in these maps are pretty consistent across all the crime types, like the mountain ridge along Mission St., and how some of the features only crop up in one or two of the maps. The most unique map by far is the one for prostitution (more on that further down).

An alternate view

Here’s the same data but from a different angle, which helps show some of the differences.

UPDATE: Whoops, I screwed up originally and had a duplicate image. The original graphic showed the same map for Vandalism and Assault (both were the Vandalism map). This updated graphic has the correct map for Assault.


Many of the maps have peaks in the Tenderloin, which is that high area sort of in the north-east center area of the city. Some are extremely concentrated (narcotics) and some are far more spread out (vehicle theft).

My favorite map is the one for prostitution (maybe “favorite” is the wrong choice of words there). Nearly all the arrests for prostitution in San Francisco occur along what I’m calling the “Mission Mountain Ridge”, which runs up Mission St between 24th and 16th.

EDIT: I’ve been corrected. Upon closer inspection the prostitution arrests are peaking on Shotwell St. at the intersections of 19th and 17th. I’m sure the number of colorful euphemisms you can come up with that include the words “shot” and “well” are endless.

I love the way the mountain range casts a shadow over much of the city. There’s also a second peak in the Tenderloin (which I’m dubbing Mt. Loin).


Drug crimes are also interesting to look at, since so much of the drug activity in San Francisco is centered in a few distinct areas. We can see Mt. Loin rising high above all the other small peaks. The second highest peak is the 16th St. BART peak.


There are other consistent features in these maps, in addition to Mt. Loin and the Mission Range. There’s a valley that separates the peaks in the Mission and the peaks in the Tenderloin, which is where the freeway runs (Valley 101). You’ll also notice a division in many of the maps that separates the southeast corner. That’s the Hunter’s Point Riverbed (aka the 280 freeway).


These maps were generated from real data, but please don’t take them as being accurate. The data was aggregated geographically and artistically rendered. This is meant more as an art piece than an informative visualization.


213 thoughts on “If San Francisco Crime were Elevation

  1. Asa says:

    these data visualisations are awesome! Your tweet about this post was an irresistible click

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  3. Really nice. Be great to see the two combined – heatmaps and topography or atleast some kind of colour banding added to the topography. That would open up all kinds of possibilities – you could slice horizontally along the bands and create layers of different ranges. In fact mixing colour and topography would also give you a way of showing two sets of data concurrently – topography for prostitution and some kind of colour banding for wealth for example.

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  5. vanderleun says:

    You want to see a real towering mountain casting a shadow deep and wide, try the same thing with rates of VD of all kinds.

  6. A says:

    I’m intrigued by the few prostitution mini-peaks in the Sunset… any particular associations there? There’s a shady “health center” at the corner of 45th and Noriega that I’m convinced is an underground brothel.

  7. Christina Waever says:

    Google map go home after this! Great idea! Should be done for all areas. Makes the numbers come alive. Good work!

  8. Joseph Moglia says:

    Anyone wanting to do similar and has access to ArcGIS with the 3D Analyst extension and knows ESRI products can do the same with any data in no time what so ever.

  9. Very awesome. I think the “airplane” angle works much better than the “satillite” angle for almost every map. Working on a “airplane” movie as your next project?


  10. frank says:

    San Francisco voters and taxpayers want legal prostitution. Stop waisting 11 mln $/year to “fight” prostitution.

  11. Mike Bailey says:

    This reminds me of the Dave Chapelle skit where he inadvertently tells all of the grade school kids where to find the best crack in town.

  12. I took a closer look at the data and it turns out that mountain ridge for prostitution actually runs up Shotwell St. Capp St also has a good share, but Shotwell and 19th and Shotwell and 17th are the highest.

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  14. Erin says:

    Graet job! I’d like to see one for homicide… I imagine it would only have a few distinct peaks. I sometimes refer to the Oakland Crimespotting map (where I live). It would be very helpful to view that as elevation.

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  16. adrian says:

    very cool doug… wondering what the vertical scale is (and timeframe). i.e. is it just total numbers or a per capita scale?

  17. TD says:

    Not to be a grammar nazi or nothin, but it ought to be “If San Francisco crime were elevation.”

  18. Ryan says:

    Brilliant work! Can you cross this data with the physical typography? I’ve always been curious if safer neighborhoods are uphill.

  19. BF says:

    I am sure this took a bit of effort. Thanks for your hard work on this. It would be interesting to pull the data in from previous decades and see how the elevation has changed in different areas.

  20. Neal says:

    Great presentations. Would be enlightening and entertaining to see these interactive, and an excellent Flex demo too.

  21. @TD- thanks for the correction, updated the title.

    @adrian – it’s just raw totals, grouped geographically. These aren’t scientific by any means, I basically took the underlying pattern and extruded it out and smoothed it a bit to make it look “pretty”. But basically each image is the aggregate numbers for a single year of crime data.

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  23. richard says:

    smoothed it a bit to make it look “pretty”

    It’s a really beautiful, and persuasive, visualisation. The prostitution map makes me wonder, though: you said these peaks represented single intersections, or pairs of intersections? So if you live halfway up the slope you’re merely closer to an area of prostitution, not in an area of moderate prostitution? I worry about that being misleading. I’m also curious about how your mountains conform to the street grid – it makes intuitive sense, and suggests a kind of “visibility of crime” but again, the prostitution map makes me wonder – is there a ‘grain’ to the visualisation independently of the data that makes it conform to the grid?

  24. thom says:

    doug… as a career addict, i’d like to see the narcotics map broken down into another bunch of maps based on substance, rather than just throwing them all into one general group. this way i’d have a constant update on where to go for the best opiates. also, i take offense to narcotics being referred to as crime. that’s just it dude, all the car/home burglaries, all the purse snatching, almost all the crimes committed to generate income would literally drop almost completely off the map if drugs were legal, cheaper and safe. you can’t call someone doing something to themselves by themselves usually behind a locked door a “crime”. it’s not hurting anyone except maybe themselves. and if drugs were legal, the content of them and their safety would be a whole other thing, eliminating the only possible victim: the user.

  25. Steve says:

    Regarding drug activity and prostitution, it would be more appropriate to call them drug and prostitution arrests instead. While other crimes are likely to be reported by the victim, the victim in these two is the state so only where the state seeks to look, will it find such activity. Online prostitution, for example will probably give a flatter contour.

    Did you normalize for population density?

    Great concept!

  26. @Steve – This is raw data (ie number of incidents) not normalized for population. I assume for many of the high crime areas, population stats would correlate.

  27. @richard – yes, there is some smoothing in effect, which means that the ridge along Shotwell St (for the prostitution map) is indeed a bit smoothed between peaks. That’s not to say that there are only two peaks at Shotwell and 19th and Shotwell and 17th. There are incidents in between as well, but the big peaks at those major intersections does mean that the ridge between them appears higher than the actual incidents along those blocks support.

    A lot of people have commented on the usefulness of maps like these. I want to stress once again: this was done as an art project much more than a useful visualization. My goal was not to provide useful information that one could act on.

  28. Einstein says:

    Now do St louis. One of the crime capitols of the US. I would be greatly interested in what you find there. There will be 3 massive mountains for everything. East St louis, North St Louis, and Downtown. All disgusting examples of Racial boundaries. We have what they call WHITE FLIGHT here. Where typically white neighborhoods that survived for 50-100 years are now urban ghettos once the white people ran for their lives literally. There are areas that were renowned for their cleanliness that are now crack infested slums with every other house vacant. Type in Scrubby Dutch for instance. 20 years ago the nice dutch people rode their bikes everywhere and literally went out every weekend and scrubbed their sidewalks clean. Now you wouldnt want to be there after dark. Now some may say im racist because I point out facts. I am not stating my opinion but strictly the facts. Take from it what you will. In 1960 there was a 90% white population and average home values were between 30-50k, now 50 years later there is a 85% black population and average home values are below 20k….. The same 30-50k homes in other neighborhoods are now worth 250-300k… and not the sad 20k in ghetto areas.

    I unfortunately moved into an area that is 85% black about 8 years (1990 it was 75% white)ago not knowing what I had gotten myself into. No wonder the white people left, there is no wealth of kind people, no wealth of information, no kind word from your neighbor, no good afternoon, no how is your day today, no gardening, no boats, no nice cars, no block parties, no meeting your neighbors, no helping your fellow man, no sunday conversations over the fence, no looking out for one another, no biking, no repairing, no helping. Just destruction everywhere you look. Oh and did I mention the police treat everyone like criminals? Yeah it doesnt matter if you are a good man, have a good job and work hard, in this area every last person is treated like a criminal. The cops are just so used to seeing criminals that they think they have the right to abuse everyone “for their safety”.

    A house may still look brand new being 50 years old, then somehow in just 8 years it turns into a rotting filth pile with boarded up windows and junkies raping children and smoking crack inside.

  29. @J – the homicide incidents are suspiciously absent from the data published by the city, not sure what that’s about…

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  31. Eric says:

    I would be interested to see overlays of multiple maps. There’s always (of course) aggregating all the data to determine the “most dangerous” areas, but I’m talking about other more interesting situations.

    Say, prositution & narcotics versus robbery & narcotics… Is there a higher coalition between certain types of crime?

    THAT would be interesting (at least to me)…

  32. This is so interesting. I too would like to see them overlaid maybe in different colors so i could see what crime goes hand in hand. Also maybe add in white color crime 😉

  33. Colm says:

    The prostitution maps are also my favourite , even if the data is simplified as discussed already. I get a kick out of the fact that the shadows are based on the sun’s position at dawn, when most of the ‘girls’ are done for the night.

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  35. Walter Parenteau says:

    Einstein, you’re anything but. Your worldview is so simplistic and generalized. You make it sound as if black people cause crime and white people don’t, but if that were true there would be no safe black neighborhoods and no dangerous white neighborhoods, but anyone who has traveled to more than a couple places in the world (or heck, in your own state) knows that that is not true. Have you considered the levels of income, opportunity, education, and employment in your neighborhood? Or considered anything else? Or are you, like the cops in your neighborhood, simply judging people across the board on just one factor–their skin color?

    These maps are very interesting but it needs to be made VERY clear that these DO NOT show how much crime is in a neighborhood–only how much is caught by the police. A neighborhood such as Pacific Heights would have a very high amount of drug abuse (certainly these maps are not showing prescription drug abuse in rich areas) and prostitution but barely measures on these maps. One of the big differences is that rich people have big homes to hide big skeletons and poor people often live out in the open where cops are driving by them and all is out for the world to see.

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  37. Drew says:

    Detroit would be a plateau for every category about a mile high. Everything is equal in Detroit. No one crime is worse than the next lol.

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  39. Sean Robert Meaney says:

    I like the Perpetual null at the centre of the region. Crime is absolutely low yet encircled by it. What is situated there?

    Perhaps you should map it according to Time as frequency ripples in water.

  40. Karl Ketzer says:

    John Lott analyzed crime statistics published by the US Department of Justice and concluded that 70% of the homicides take place in just three percent of the counties. I’ve always wanted to see a visual 3-D representation of that.


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  44. David says:

    ARREST DATA, not CRIME DATA. a-hem? Someone might have pointed it out, but the difference is HUGE, HUGE, HUGE. Nicely portrayed data, but it’s not crime data, is it? Thanks (I came from POPURLS!)

  45. AD says:

    one thing to note regarding the prostitution arrests is that most all of them occur in “stings.” typically, an undercover (making all sorts of overtime cash, btw) sits around looking for prostitutes/attempting to attract johns. thus, there’s sort of a “chicken and the egg” problem here: are all of the arrests concentrated in certain areas because that’s honestly where all the hookers are, or are all the arrests concentrated in certain areas because that’s where the cops are?

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  47. NoeValleyJim says:

    At the middle of San Francisco are two tall hills called “Twin Peaks”. There are no people there and not too surprisingly, not much crime.

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  54. Brian says:

    “one trick pony. these maps add nothing of value to a standard color plot.”

    I disagree: allowing for a third dimension of elevation makes the reality of concentration clearer – and half the point of crime mapping is to measure concentration, not simply “intensity.”

  55. Chuck says:

    Too bad its just arrest stats. Some crimes like prostitution, narcotics, and people out on warrants do not get reported to police as often as say vehicle theft, which is more wide spread. If there are higher concentrations of police on duty in the Tenderloin area for any of these issues listed, they will more than likely be making more arrests for the other issues because they are around to witness them even though the issues are probably more wide spread. You also have to account for the stake out or bait and switch methods of catching prostitutes or street side drug dealers.

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  57. This is amazing work. Would you be interested in doing similar maps with health data? If so, please contact me at bfeder at usc dot edu. Thanks!

    Barbara Feder Ostrov
    Deputy Editor,

  58. @casey – Yes, the graphic for the “alternate view” did indeed have a duplicated image (assault was the same image as vandalism). This has been updated, sorry!

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  60. Chuck says:

    Fascinating. But I wonder how/if dividing by local population density would change the landscape. The intention would be to give more of an “expected crime per person” topology(?).

  61. BobN says:

    Pity you can’t (I assume) also plot where the perps live. Sure would spread out Mt. Loin.

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  63. Patrick Koppula says:

    Great idea and nice work on the graphics, but there are at least three improvements you should make to reveal *true* patterns. Forgive me if you already did these.

    1) Availability bias – normalize for population density (i.e. per capita activity)

    2) Sampling bias – normalize for the number of cops on the beat (geographic and crime type)

    2) Frame bias – break it up by daytime and night time

  64. Joey says:

    I’ve always wondered if the 3D crime map I the inverse of the real topological map in SF. In other words, the crime happens predominantly in the valleys and flatlands, so it’s the topology turned upside down. I think these maps show this to generally be the case.

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  66. Antonio Cuza says:

    Marta, this is very interesting. mapping is becoming so intricate with those data overlays.. To slice the data by day part, time of year and weather would probably give some interesting outputs. I have done some forecast modeling using GIS and Loyalty Card and HH level data which yielded very interesting maps.

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  68. Dennis Gentry says:

    It would also be interesting to see the topography normalized to population density. Maybe Mt. Loin would be lower if you divided out the high population density in that area. (Or maybe not.)

  69. Nathan says:

    Good post, Einstein. Notice Walter P. can’t refute what you stated, but just babbles about “education,” poverty and all the rest, when it’s been proven that none of these factors has much at all to do with crime rates. A defective culture does. Ever notice that guys like Walter never the lecture the rest of us with their self-righteous PC bromides from, say, Detroit? Or East St. Louis? Nope: it’s always safely tucked away into a non-Black enclave. Very telling.

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  80. Steve Nordquist says:

    Too much a toy, not only for linear mapping to height (which helps explain the Scots High San Francisco look) and 9AM light, and lack of baseline shots and volume (which should reflect total reported crime of the given sort) normalization, but also leaving out building stand-ins (no doubt also why the last guy was looking at -houses- in SFO.) Get your photo morphing mojo on, I’d say.

    Add the Gate info and you can count all the carjackings at sea, etc. The sea’s idyllic but not that idyllic; at least, the gulls steal fries with truffle oil first, I’m told.

    Then there’s inclining your hills to reflect the injunction in question; a groove in the John shallows, a tear-out cloud where cars get scarce, assault and open warrants in anticline…. If you can get a time series up, you can select from watching crime patterns get beat down or scatter; or perhaps make isoclines in which one can travel in order to experience a constant rate of abuse (assuming you report them regularly, too.)

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  83. AaronS says:

    It appears that if the police could/would flood the “mountain range” with officers, they’d be a chilling influence on about 80% of the crime in the city. Since “criminal areas” are not established overnight, criminals couldn’t “just pack up” and move across town, since their clientele wouldn’t know where to find them.

    Further, I imagine that proximity to one’s home or “turf” is important, so the inhabitants of these areas are almost certainly the criminals. If they can’t operate near home, they will likely go out of business.

    Of course, when you think about it, if crime goes away, so does the need for policemen and prestige and budgets associated with the superiors thereof. So we can expect that our leaders will not actually stamp out crime, but will simply swoop in from time to time in order to appear tough on crime.

    OK, sorry…that was my natural cynicism showing. I know that most police officers likely WISH that all they had to worry about nothing more evil and ugly than just being a crossing guard or traffic cops. I don’t believe most of them would dare want the evil they have seen to continue. God bless them all.

  84. Marco A. says:

    Larceny in the Wharf where people are stealing from tourists (or their cars).

    Murders are clustered around city housing projects and poor neighborhoods.

    Otherwise much of the crime is centered around the major drug dealing spots in the Mission and Tenderloin. Mission & 16th has been a huge drug spot for at least 15 years. It moved south a couple of blocks after they improved the BART station (probably adding a crime camera).


  86. I believe this would be a boon for all cities with published crime data. My mind is spinning with a devilishly clever collaboration between you and Randall of to produce an API that one could feed data into and get a nicely generated map.

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  88. Very Interesting says:

    Did you hear that peace on NPR of one individual wanting to test sewage for drug traces? Facinating.

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  99. Hello: What you did not state is if the crimes were adjudicated or if the crimes were a result of reports, detentions, arrests and convictions. I assume the vandalism has absolutely no arrest record data whereas the prostitution is entirely about arrests and possible convictions. The warrants are for traffic violations so the data regardless of representation is misleading and the million dollar datum –
    murder – is not profiled. Why?

  100. veelin says:

    I think the maps look creepy and diseased, and their meaning only makes it worse! I couldn’t “love” any of them.

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  103. Michael says:

    I haven’t read the above comments, but perhaps a relevant point should be made that these are all maps of arrests/citations, which may be a better representation of where the cops are focusing their attention than where the bad stuff is actually happening.

    For example, the Tenderloin is a popular spot for tourists, so naturally, it’s going to be a spot where the cops have an incentive to work.

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  107. props says:

    We’ve seen the prostitution increase in the Shot Well area because of police intervention in Tenderloin. This was years ago. It’s not left since. Drug activity has not been decreased despite actual names and locations reported to police. The Police Dept has decided our crimes are “contained” and need not be dealt with, despite the loss of quality of life to the rest of the community. This is something frightening.

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  109. frsico dude says:

    you should make one of white collar crime & ecological crime, aka the shady ass shit that creates more havoc and world suffering than all these other maps combined x100… thinkin there are gonna spikes right along market, in the marina, and at genentech and other similar bio-tech companies……its easy to look at petty crimes that result from our suffering in capitalism, but rarely are the true world crimes exposed.

  110. BREANNA says:

    You are right on about the mission! SHOTWELL.. WHEN i went out there to work a year ago,i was clockin 400 in 2 hours! Now its so hot,i dont bother with it.I just stay on line and STAY ON TOP OF YOUR MAP IN THE L’S!!:):)lol… ID RATHER BE ON TOP OF U THOUGH!!:)

  111. Your prostitution map looks spectacular. Would like to see an Amsterdam version. But what do we see? The way San Francisco works or the way San Francisco is perceived by cops?

    Rob van der Bijl (Amsterdam, Netherlands).

  112. sean says:

    Right on to Michael’s post on June 15th. The same thing could be said to explain the existence of the “Mission Ridge.”

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  115. Kurt says:

    I assume you are using 3D analyst … I suggest that you create a movie (fly around) and post that. However, you aren’t the first to do this and you limit use interpretation by not defining your input parameters that you used in creating your raster file, which were extruded to produce these images. Parameters such as radius (determined from several Morans-I runs), and output cell size and if any point was weighted. How did you choose those inputs?

    Also density and crime type need to be considered! A crime is not a crime is not a crime in a singular type and longitudinal fashion. Models of neighborhood development will guide you further in this process. I remember when I first started similar projects … it caught my attention and launched a pretty fun career. Good luck should you choose to become a GIS analyst!

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  123. Carol says:

    How much of this is skewed though, by the fact that lower income folks are more likely to be arrested and prosecuted? I bet there is a lot of high range prostitution that would peak in the more affluent parts of the city, but don’t show up on the map. Same with drug use.

  124. Bielanski says:

    As a human geography geek, I might take two more steps on these visualizations (which are beautiful in their accessibility and impact, definitely a project I would teach!).
    1) color shade by zoning or corridor type (to assist people that aren’t as familiar with the target city).
    2) constrain the heightmap exaggeration to the street vectors to help alleviate map skew arising from peak values (to avoid identifying incorrect streets 😉 )


  125. As a San Francisco drug user – and former “evening lady” from 20 years back – I am most entertained by this graphical display. Interesting to see that Capp Street is still the primary “working corridor” – that’s Capp you’re seeing there, which is very close to Shotwell. It’s odd that there’s a bump in the Tenderloin: I currently live there and when I go to a grocery store at night, I take a look around on the street I used to traverse every night back in 1990, and nary a hooker do I ever see. They must be dressing VERY discreetly these days.

    I believe the drug use map is highly misleading. Remember this merely depicts drug BUSTS. There’s a whole lot more users who do not hang out on streetcorners hawking substances or blowing their despicable little crack pipes…and they are located literally everywhere within our City, from poor ‘hoods to places like Pacific Heights and Glen Park.

    In San Francisco, you have to pretty much be a complete moron to end up busted for dope, like one of the idiots I see in my neighbourhood who smoke rock right out in the open as if it were tobacco. Although “bad cop luck” can happen to anyone, for the most part, if you’re quiet about what you do and don’t have busybody neighbours, you won’t end up busted for drugs here. In other cities and towns, cops will pull you over, or search you or your premises, just for wearing clothes or having hairstyles identifying you as a fan of counterculture. I’ve said it before and will say it again, and again many more times to come: Man, I love San Francisco!

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  128. JoAnne says:

    Here’s a link to the map I did for 2000 population density of the US represented by artificial elevation, using Bryce:

    Inspired by Wanda Sykes’ election-related rant on simplistic red state versus blue state maps because “ain’t no one living there” in Montana.

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  135. Tyler A. says:

    Might be interesting to see the data divided by density (for the area). [Or as a heatmap overlay on the existing map.]

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  141. Mario Vieira says:

    Really nice piece of work. I’ve seen your “future of data visualization” slides, and I wonder, where does this leaves us? How interactive you think it can get, and what sort of possibilities you see rising from it?
    Given your self-assignment it’d be well interesting knowing your thoughts on that.

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