Case Study 3:
Data Visualization

Rice Memories

How can a simple data set, such as someone’s phone call record, be visually generated to narrate a story?

Rice Memories is a data visualization project. I was given a cellphone user’s phone bill records for 1 year. The goal of this project was the manipulate the data into informative and expressive visual forms using Processing software.

Process: Data Mining

Sample of January data set

Particular phone numbers within the data set were categorized within the phone user’s ‘Buddy-List’ (found under ‘callType’.) This implied that the user called these numbers often, so I interpreted these numbers as the phone user’s friends.

From this idea, narrating a story about lasting friendships through the course of a year’s cell phone data collection became the focus for my data-visualization.

Visual Explorations

First processing exploration

In the beginning of my visual exploration, I represented the individual digits of all phone numbers as a coloured square. Each digit from 0 to 9 had a different colour. They were aligned in sequence of the order the calls were made as well. This resulted in a linear pattern of colours that showed the diversity and consistency of calls made with particular numbers.

Creating patterns by importing circular vector .svg symbols

Data with underwater background

My next step was to design a symbol to represent the phone numbers from the “Buddy-List” that would contrast with the numbers that were not. I also wanted the symbols to have a cultural reference so that it can provide a narrative for viewers. I took many details into consideration on the design of these symbols so that when driven by the data set, they would have intricate and bold visual qualities on print and on digital screens.

Scale of forms determine the duration of call

Unique shapes for phone numbers in the Buddy-List were positioned randomly to fill the background.


The Processing sketch I coded for the data-driven design piece calls upon the all the phone numbers within the year’s data-set. I assigned 5 unique grains of coloured rice to the top 5 phone numbers within the “Buddy-List”. Whenever these numbers were read in the data-set, they appeared as the 20 coloured grains of rice. If not, they were 20 grains of white rice.

Each My Buddy number was represented by a unique set of grains of rice.

The size of the rice grains are in proportion to the length duration of the calls. So the longer the call was to a number, the greater dimensions of the corresponding grains of rice. The position of the symbols were set to random to achieve the effect of a great overview and summary of the phone user’s relationship with the 5 particular phone numbers called within the year. By randomizing the location of the symbols, I was able to fill the background dimension space and express the lively nature of having conversations with friends.

Busan, South Korea, 1983.

Grains of rice act as a cultural semantic to the way people spend time and practice friendship when sharing food in the Asian culture. By representing phone numbers with grains of rice I am also claiming that talking to our friends is a staple of a healthy social life, like how rice is a staple food source in Asian culture diets. The background image is an old photograph of my father and his friends, which further supports the narration of building relationships through the time we spend together eating and talking.

Final Poster

Click to enlarge:

Final poster, 48.6” x 30”

The journey taken to analyze the phone data began from a quantitative approach and resulted in a qualitative outcome of reinterpretation and narration through data driven design. Through this process I learned not to limit the potential to use quantitative and factual data in order to express cultural and human qualities.