Spotify's resident media artist program unlocks the power and beauty of data

It's always a gamble for a company to attach itself to an artist. But Spotify sees it as a natural extension of its corporate culture. For a company that holds regular hackathons and hack weeks, in which employees are encouraged to experiment and step outside of the box, bringing in a resident artist just makes sense. Kyle McDonald, an adjunct professor at ITP, is kicking off the company's new Media Artist in Residence program (after hounding the company on Twitter) with Serendipity, a web app that shows when two people start playing the same song simultaneously. All the app does is tap into Spotify's API and look for when a song starts in two locations within 100ms of each other. Then it highlights them on a map that zooms in and out, and dances about. Shockingly, this happens at least 10 times a second! Kyle said that for the most popular songs up to 10 different people will queue them up at the exact same moment, but for the purposes of his experiment he stuck with only displaying two instances.

The trick is pretty neat, for sure, but it was just one of easily a hundred ideas Kyle had in brainstorming document he showed me. And just one of a handful of those ideas that became actual pieces of code art over the last several months as he worked with engineers at Spotify. Other projects were also impressive, though perhaps a little less polished. One simply displayed every instance of a track playing in Spotify as a twinkle on a rotating globe, while another spat out every track shared through the service along with any included comments. The second got closer to the goal of pulling out the hidden personal connections in the data stream, but both were quite overwhelming to look at.

The immediate use for knowing when two people simultaneously play a song doesn't seem obvious, and we wouldn't count on it popping up in the next version of the Spotify desktop app. But Serendipity does show what's possible thanks to the streams of data flowing through the company's APIs. And that's he whole idea. The Media Artist in Residence program isn't about creating new features, it's about igniting creative sparks that eventually lead to new features. The people at Spotify focused on its social tools are now looking at what Kyle built over the last couple of months and starting to think of practical ways leverage the tools he's created.

Spotify hopes this is just the first in a series of partnerships with artists. There are no others lined up at the moment, but the company is taking applications through its Media Artist in Residence page. The results of those marriages might not be "useful" in the traditional sense. But maybe these pieces of code art will get Spotify's engineers thinking about social networking or music discovery in new and interesting ways.