The data visualization geek behind Facebook’s Timeline

We learned a lot about two people’s lives during Facebook’s f8 keynote on Thursday: Mark Zuckerberg and Nicholas Felton. Zuck showed off photos of his dog and his childhood to demonstrate the company’s new Timeline feature, which made sense. But why was Facebook VP of Product Management Chris Cox talking so much about Felton’s life, elaborating some 10 minutes about how Felton really loved to collect data that would bore most other people? And who the heck is Nicholas Felton?

In short, he’s the god of data visualization. Felton’s work has been featured in Wired, the New York Times (s nyt) and the Wall Street Journal. (s nws) He’s received props for turning unwieldy things like all the things that have been written about on Wikipedia or abstract concepts like the economy of ideas into compelling infographics. But he’s probably best known for the mundane aspects of his everyday life. Like the music he listens to and the kind of booze he drinks.

The kind of music Nicholas Felton listened to in 2008 to, as visualized by Nicholas Felton.

The reason for that is that Felton has been turning this kind of data into annual reports about his own life and the life of people close to him ever since 2005. These annual reports contain beautiful data visualizations, which is why Cox called them works of art on stage on Thursday.

However, the reports also provide interesting clues on how to utilize and get value out of data that others would simply discard, which is exactly what Facebook’s new Timeline feature is about. When working on this, Facebook had to decide how to make sense of a person’s life, how to summarize some behavior and feature other events. No wonder they turned to Felton for advice. The data visualization expert was hired by Facebook in April — and on Thursday, it looked like this key hire more than paid off.

Image courtesy of (CC-BY-SA) Flickr user poptech.