Django Creator Adrian Holovaty On Turning Data Into Opportunity

Adrian Holovaty2

Chicago-based Web developer Adrian Holovaty is a polymath of sorts, though considerably more unassuming. A pioneer of journalism via computer programming, he was the founder of EveryBlock, an innovative site that offered neighborhood news, searchable crime data and local forums until it was shut down earlier this year. Holovaty is best known for co-creating Django, “the Web framework for perfectionists with deadlines,” while working in a newsroom, as a tool to help him build Web applications very quickly. The free, open-source software was publicly released in July 2005, and is used by tens of thousands of users and companies, including Pinterest and Instagram.

“The common thread in what I’ve worked on professionally is creating structure from chaos,” Holovaty says, whether that’s taking messy, unorganized data collected by journalists and transforming it into a clean presentation or distilling information by neighborhood and city block.

Many Opportunities to Provide Structure

The talented developer sees many possibilities for ways that data could be made more widely available. He cites the prevalence of PDFs as an example—government agencies and other holders of large amounts of data often release numbers in formats (like PDF) that aren’t readable to computers, thus limiting their effectiveness as a distribution tool.

And though Holovaty has moved on from the world of journalism, he still believes that the presentation or format of content should shift. “Instead of an article that’s a big blob of text…maybe that’s not the best way to present a given bit of information,” he says. “That was the best way in 1920, across the centuries, but now, depending on the type of information, a searchable database might be better, or something that interacts with the user somehow could be better.”

Holovaty was particularly impressed with the Guardian’s NSA Special Report, which was both interactive and relevant to the user. The report showed the number of people “three hops” from the reader, based on their Facebook information. Another part of the long scrolling page showed how many terabytes of data the NSA had selected for review since the person began reading.  “That’s unique and tailored to the reader. That transcends just writing an article that is the same for everyone who reads it,” Holovaty says.


Creating Music Out of Chaos

Holovaty looks for unstructured data as an opportunity to reach new users. His latest project, Soundslice (created with designer PJ Macklin), makes learning music accessible to amateur musicians by allowing them to listen to guitar tabs synced with video. (Holovaty plays gypsy jazz guitar, in the style of Django Reinhardt.)

“If you’re an amateur guitarist, chances are that if you want to learn a song, you’re going to want to listen to the original version of it in order to ‘get it in your ears,’ so to speak,” Holovaty explains.  “Before Soundslice, you’d have to track down the tab, track down a recording, and awkwardly look at the tab while you listened to the music. With Soundslice, you see everything together in the same interface, which is a thousand times more efficient.”

“I think the most helpful thing about it is the combination of the scrolling and the synchronization with the music,” says Thomas Matysik, a self-taught guitarist and Soundslice user. “In that way, it’s a lot like the video games Guitar Hero or Rock Band, where you’re playing along with the song and you have the guidance with the notes zooming by before your eyes. For more difficult music, it’s particularly helpful to use the half speed feature, which slows down the song by 50 percent without affecting the pitch of it at all,” he says.

Matysik has tried to learn songs from guitar tabs in the past, but had difficulty with the plain text format most tabs were posted in, because it was difficult to scroll down the page and play at the same time, and zooming out to a size where no scrolling would be necessary made the tabs too small.

“The main problem is that tabs don’t provide a sense of the rhythm/timing of the music—i.e., how long to hold the notes,” Holovaty explains. “In standard sheet music, that’s a solved problem, because note values (quarter note, half note, etc.) tell you how long to hold the note. But in tabs, there’s no representation of how long to hold the note. Soundslice solves this by marrying the tab with a recording so that you can actually hear the music as you see how to play it.”

Soundslice also allows users to search for YouTube videos and annotate songs on their own, uploading it to the site for others to learn from. Creating new platforms on that scale isn’t for everyone—Holovaty has been at it a long time—but opportunities to present information in innovative new ways are ripe for the picking.

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About Yael Grauer

Yael Grauer is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor. Find her online at Yael Writes.