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Beyond the numbers with data artist Jer Thorp

jer thorpe teched auckland idealogInformation is power, and arguably the most valuable commodity of the 21st century. That's why Jer Thorp, data artist in residence at the New York Times, argues it's crucial that normal people have access to the day-to-day data they produce.

Jer Thorp was confused when, at a conference, he heard the crowd applaud after the speaker made a proclamation: “Data is the new oil.”

“I didn’t know why they were applauding,” says Thorp.

“Look how well oil has worked out for us.”

Thorp is data artist in residence at the New York Times, and the keynote speaker at Auckland’s TechEd conference this week.

He's passionate about data. Through his work, he brings information to life, and is one of the few people who can manage to truly revitalise the connection between numbers and people.

Perhaps one of the best examples of his work is the 9/11 memorial in New York.

In 2009, the architect behind the memorial, Michael Arad, had a special idea in mind for how the 2983 victim names should be arranged around the memorial pools. He wanted them to be grouped according to affiliation.

For instance, the names of employees from a certain company would be surrounded by each other. Within and between these groups, there would be links among people who had “meaningful adjacencies”. In other words, connections – these could be friendships, family ties, or even acts of heroism on the day the towers collapsed – would be considered. Firefighters would be next to firefighters. Waiters would be next to waiters. Names of those who had never met before September 11 – but spent their final moments together – would be inscribed side by side on the granite.

Over a few years, staff at the 9/11 Memorial Foundation collected adjacency requests from the next of kin of victims. What they ended up with was a huge database of connections. There were more than 1,000 requests in total, and Thorp was given the target of satisfying at least 95 percent of them.

He designed an algorithm to figure out how the names should be laid out on the memorial. The algorithm had to consider primary groupings, such as the company victims worked for, as well as requested adjacencies, such as the fact that two people who might have worked in different companies were siblings.

The final algorithm meant designers could manually arrange names into an aesthetically pleasing arrangement on-screen while still being able to see if adjacency requests were being fulfilled. Eventually the team finished the project, satisfying more than 98 percent of adjacency requests.

The end result sees brothers, colleagues, travel companions, and friends linked in a way that communicates more than the sum of lives lost. It immortalises stories that would have been forgotten had the names been listed alphabetically or chronologically.

For example, almost 700 employees from Cantor Fitzgerald are grouped together, showing that nearly the entire company was killed. Had the names been arranged alphabetically, that piece of information would have gone unnoticed.

“The project was a reminder that information carries weight,” says Thorp.

“It’s easy to download a data set and forget that the numbers represent real people.”

How data can change your world

Thorp says looking ahead, data gathered from technology like smartphones and web browsers, if harnessed effectively, has the potential to enrich daily life. He compares the storage of data to something like a diary, chronicling the places you go and the people you meet.

“It’s this idea of having a record,” he says. “You can learn more about yourself. These are our histories being stored on these devices.”

He emphasises that having access to something as simple as a location tracker on your smartphone can help you – you could analyse your own travel for a month and decide, for example, whether you would be better off using a monthly bus pass rather than a weekly one.

On a deeper level, everyday people can eventually become active contributors to answers for societal problems in areas such as urban planning. In short, he says if people have access to their own data, they can become more engaged in the world around them.

“At the moment there’s not a lot of opportunity for us to access our own data, and that’s one of the main problems,” says Thorp.

“The first party is rarely invited to the party.”

He says two-way conversation between corporations and everyday people has been one of the key missing components in previous industries, such as the oil industry. 

“We need inclusion in this dialogue from people who can bring a human element into the discussion.”

By understanding the human connection to data, Thorp says a basic regard for the people behind the numbers will emerge.

“It builds automatic empathy for the people involved in these systems. And that, in turn, builds a fundamental respect which I believe is missing in a large part of technology today.

“When we start to understand these numbers aren’t just numbers, they’re attached to pieces of the real world and they carry weight, the dialogue becomes a lot different.”

The case for gestural interfaces

Going forward, Thorp says gestural technology is key to getting people to interact meaningfully with their own data.

“The hand is the most amazing tool,” he says.

“With the mouse, we have essentially turned it into a claw and it's not utilised to its full potential. We only use the mouse because it was given to us and that’s what everyone uses.”

Thorp says being able to use natural gestures to interact with screens, and therefore visual data displays, means the process of interacting with, understanding, and visualising data becomes more natural.

“Our parents and grandparents showed photo albums to us, and we’re in a time now where we’ll be showing our children Facebook accounts and Flickr albums,” says Thorp.

“The data we produce adds another layer to the story.”

[Photo credit]