The beauty in the data big bang
During the holidays, I visited what could be the world’s first big data exhibition at Somerset House in London, called “Big Bang Data”. The premise is that we are now drowning in a “data tsunami” as data is all around us and is intercepted and analysed in an ever-increasing torrent of data applications.
The exhibition itself was larger than I expected, given the novelty of the topic, and is very well laid out. Each small sub-space is themed (visualisations, cloud, internet-of-things, security/privacy, open data, etc) and guides the viewer carefully through the world of data.
What I particularly enjoyed was the hands-on aspect that several installations included. You can become the mayor of London in the situation room, turning dials and shifting levers to decide if the city should focus more on better Tube connections or more cycle paths, for example. At the end, you see how well you did and what impact it had on the city. There are also numerous other stations where you can personalise your experience and learn more. Taking active part in an experiment always gives so much more than just passive observation.
I was also particularly struck by the beautiful and creative visualisations. For most of us in the data community, we are comfortable working with numbers, code and algorithms – visualisations bordering on artwork are remote from what we do. I am personally in awe of those able to take a complex set of data and turn it into stunning graphs and plots. One piece from artists Stefanie Posavec and Giorgia Lupi stood out for me. The artists sent each other one postcard a week with visualisations from their own lives. The postcard was chosen as a slow-travelling medium, as opposed to an instant email. The visualisations were stunningly beautiful and complex and I would have loved to spend an hour (or more!) just studying the cards.
There were also some visualisation classics displayed, such as the now infamous Florence Nightingale representation of army casualties and John Snow’s investigation of cholera cases in the late 19th century. It is inspiring to see these first attempts at data visualisation and know that they made a real impact. Which will be the most powerful representations of our time, one wonders?
There were one or two instances of less-successful artwork as well. On a few occasions, art was presented as being based on data, but the connection with the data was completely unclear and obscure. Being an ex-scientist and Zooniverse user, I was especially keen to see Julie Freeman’s piece visualising Zooniverse data, “We Need Us”. Unfortunately, the video was so abstracted that it felt as if it could have been completely random figures shown on the screen. The connection with the data was lost and therefore the value to be part of this particular exhibition.
Overall, the exhibition is a very educational and beautiful representation of a very abstract topic. Within the data community, we all burn passionately for the revolution that data will bring, but we often forget that the public awareness to data and its issues (both good and bad) is low. For the general public, this exhibition educates and shows the possibilities that data brings. For data veterans, it offers a new perspective on the work we do, some inspiration and a lot of data eye candy.
The exhibition continues until 28 February 2015 and is well worth a visit.
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