Artist, programmer, and professor at Florida State University Owen Mundy was using Instagram to photograph his three-year-old when he realized the app had been recording the coordinates of his backyard and making it publicly available via Instagram’s API. He created cluster visualizations of cats whose living quarters had been made public by social media. The project website Iknowwhereyourcatlives.com shows a global map with clusters of cats. Users can press the “Random Cat” button to be taken to a photo of an individual cats, or see clusters in an aerial view of a city or country. Charts and maps give a broad overview of cats per location, which according to Mundy are “representations of globalism, access to smartphones, and relaxed consideration for individual privacy.”
But why cats? And why the title “I Know Where Your Cat Lives”? Mundy wanted to translated the creepiness of discovering his location was public in a fun and harmless way. Cats are not only an important part of internet culture, they are loved like children, he says.
Mundy will be speaking at the L2 Forum on November 10th at The Morgan Library. (L2 members: Please request invite here.) Full Q&A below:
Why did you choose cat photos as a gateway into privacy research?
I was using Instagram to photograph my three year old and one day I realized that the app had been recording and embedding the geographic coordinates of my backyard. I was concerned because I didn’t explicitly give permission to share this data. Nor did I tell Instagram they could make it publicly available via their API.
Using cats seemed to be the most effective way to get traction for a conversation around this issue. I wanted to translate the creepiness of the experience in a way that was fun but technically harmless. Not only are cats an important part of internet culture, but in many ways they are loved like children.
Were there any other types of personal photos you thought about using, like food photos?
Once I settled on cats, there was nothing I could imagine that would be better. Artists are fond of using beauty to explore a subject to create dialog. I’m less interested in subjectivity, and more in the relational momentum that art can generate around questions important to humanity.
Any interesting insights you’ve found from the data algorithms on FSU computers?
I used the high performance computing cluster at Florida State University to create the cluster visualizations. I was using my Macbook but when one process took three weeks to complete I decided I needed a bigger machine. The clustered data allows users to drill down to explore “cat density” in any geographic area on earth. The charts on the site also give a broad overview of cats per location. The images are less likely to explain where all the cats in the world exist than they are to describe how many photos of cats have been uploaded from each of these places. So the maps are perhaps a better representation of globalism, access to smart phones, and relaxed consideration for individual privacy.
Your site has been described as incredibly addictive, but many have pondered on the practical uses. What do you hope to do with all this information?
My two favorite quotes from journalists on this project are: “Here’s The Website You Will Never Ever Leave” and “Owen Mundy just ruined the Internet.” On one hand it’s an intentionally fun website. At every step during its construction I worked to make it easy to use and enjoyable. The Random Cat button is the culmination of this idea. On the other it’s a sophisticated visualization and experiment into how privacy is changing. It makes tangible the implications for everyone of a complicated technical process that allows a violation of our privacy. It makes us smile, think, and even act.
What should Forum attendees expect at your talk?
I will be talking about social media, visualization, data privacy, and of course cats!