Global Issues TED Fellows

How data constellations tell a story: MAPPing the TED Fellows network and the conflict in Syria

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What’s this galaxy-like cluster of dots and lines? It’s the TED Fellows Collaboration Network MAPP, a rich and interactive web that shows the patterns of cross-disciplinary collaboration among TED Fellows over the past four years. This rainbow visualization was created using MAPPR, a cloud-based network mapping tool that Eric Berlow demoed during TED2014. It allows anyone to make shareable, interactive network visualizations.

The TED Fellows program began as a way to support and amplify the work of thinkers and innovators through the conference. But then something unexpected happened – the professionally diverse community, which includes scientists, makers, activists, artists, technologists and more, became its own living, breathing organism. Fellows began reaching out to each other for all manner of cross-disciplinary collaborations. A few examples include:

  • Filmmaker and sitar player Andrew Mendelson working with open-hardware guru Catarina Mota to incorporate programmable Arduino-powered tuners on his Carbon Fiber Sitar project.
  • Satirist and designer Safwat Saleem working with applied mathematician Max Little to help make all the visuals for his TEDMED talk on his revolutionary work to blend math and data science for the advancement of medicine.
  • Microbial ecologist Jessica Green collaborating with photojournalist John Adam Huggins and filmmaker Anita Doron to create a sci-fi graphic novel about the human microbiome set in Paris.
  • Tissue engineer Nina Tandon writing a TED Book with architect and futurist Mitch Joachim called Super Cells: Building with Biology.
  • Social media entrepreneur Suleiman Bakhit collaborating with strategist Adrian Hong during the Libyan revolution in 2011, to help open the door for the evacuation of tens of thousands of injured civilians and provide them with urgent medical care in Jordan. This collaboration had to be kept secret to avoid retaliation from the Libyan regime; it was mentioned publicly for the first time on the TED Fellows stage in Vancouver this year.
  • Bakhit also happens to be working with neuroscientist and poet Ivana Gadjanski to turn one of her poems into a comic book.

A whopping 84% of the Fellows documented in the collaboration network had at least one cross-disciplinary collaboration. And MAPPR itself is a creative collaboration among three Fellows: ecologist and network scientist Eric Berlow, artist/designer David Gurman and computer scientist Kaustuv DeBiswas, who together launched Vibrant Data, a data storytelling boutique in San Francisco’s Chinatown. They’re now focused on building MAPPR to enable the understanding of complex networks. Custom projects include mapping the collaboration network of faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, and visualizing the ecology of human creativity.

We asked Berlow to tell us more. Below, an edited transcript of our conversation.

What is MAPPR? What does it do?

It’s a cloud-based tool that lets anyone publish interactive visual stories about how things are connected. These network stories can be about anything — from the network structure of collaborations as with the TED Fellows, to identifying patterns of funding among donors and grant recipients, to unraveling the complexity of conflict. In one of our recent projects, we have mapped the conflict in Syria (see below), in collaboration with Vibrant Data’s conflict analyst, Scott Field. The Syrian civil war is widely regarded as the defining political crisis for the future of the Middle East. One of the main reasons it will be so hard to resolve is that is not a “stand-alone” conflict, but involves a complex intertwining of the vital strategic interests of all major powers that make up the regional security system. The Vibrant Data team aggregated expert analysis of the conflict to visualize that tangle of interests and identify its emergent structure. We hope that visualizing the structure of this conflict—and others—might help suggest pathways to resolving them sooner.

How does MAPPR work and who can use it?

MAPPR allows you to upload custom datasets of relationships and publish them as online custom network visualization stories. Each node and link in the network can be its own multimedia microsite. For example, in the TED Fellows collaboration network, each node can contain people’s bios, images, videos and so on, and each link can display multimedia information about that specific collaboration.

Network visualization isn’t new, but it has remained relatively inaccessible to non-experts. Anyone can use MAPPR. It’s designed to make network science accessible to anyone interested in visualizing and sharing a story — or Network MAPP — about how things are connected.  MAPPR is currently in private beta, and people can sign up at We’ll notify them when it’s ready, likely at the end of April 2014.

During your talk at TED2014, you seemed bowled over by the results of the Fellows collaborations survey. Why do you think TED Fellows collaborations are so prolific and unusual?

We live in a world where we generally match like with like. Just look at any online suggestion engine! While this approach is great if you’re shopping for red shoes, if broadly applied, it has the potential to kill the creative innovation that comes from serendipitous encounter and unexpected remixes. The Fellows program does a remarkable job of selecting individuals who are not only incredibly diverse and interdisciplinary, but also have in common that they are extraordinarily open to new ideas and working together.