Prismviz

Nerd art: Grad's 'Prism' program turns your SMS metadata into groovy wavy graphics

What if the NSA took your text message metadata and made a flowing, colorful diagram with a timeline?

The U.S. spy agency—probably—doesn’t do that. But a 22-year-old Yale graduate, Bay Gross, was actually inspired by the U.S. government’s Prism surveillance program revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

Gross, who just started working at Google in New York on Monday, created an application he describes as “part data, part art” that analyzes a person’s own SMS messages and lays them out in a rainbow wave. Appropriately, he named it "Prism.”

Prism, which works on Mac OS, draws the SMS metadata from the user’s own unencrypted backups within iTunes. It pulls who was texted and when and plots the data in a “Streamgraph,” a type of stacked graph developed by Lee Byron, who is an interactive information designer with Facebook.

Byron, who was a graphics intern with the New York Times in 2008, developed a Streamgraph for the newspaper that displayed box office revenues for films. The graphic drew praise and criticism due to its unorthodox approach.

Streamgraphs emphasize the “legibility of individual layers, arranging the layers in a distinctively organic form,” according to an academic paper authored by Byron and Martin Wattenberg.

Gross says from an analytical view the Streamgraph is “kind of useless.” The y-axis, for example, which appears to represent volume of texts to a recipient, is “completely made up.”

Prismviz
Is it art, or is it a breach of privacy?

But Prism does enable a more emotive or romantic view of data. The x-axis, which represents time, can show the degree to which some relationships are zero sum or even seasonal, Gross said. You can see, for example, how some texting relationships start fast and furious but atrophy to a meager small stream.

The application doesn’t show the content of the messages. Gross has also put in a feature where the graphs created by Prism can be exported but minus people’s names. The graph can be manipulated using a variety of parameters, such as by date, popularity and frequency of contact.

Prism is a desktop application for Mac. Apple lets people encrypt their iPhone backups on a computer, but Prism needs access to an unencrypted backup. All of the processing is done on a person’s computer, and nothing is sent to a remote server, Gross said.

Apple rejected Prism from inclusion in its App Store, but Gross said that’s due to the company’s strict guidelines for its store. However, Prism is a certified developer application.

Prism is free as part of its launch, but will eventually cost $0.99.

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