The team at LEC London constantly strives to make complex data compelling, engaging and accessible, so every single one of us jumped at the chance to see an exhibition about creative data representation – Big Bang Data at Somerset House.
We’re living in a data explosion. We deal with data every day of our working lives, but often forget that more of the stuff is being generated every second, from Google searches, shopping transactions and emails to using public transport.
The exhibition was a heady mix of video, printed and interactive installations, beginning with two fully immersive video rooms. The first, a sterile tour of the world’s data centres, where endless cables and throbbing servers store an ever increasing mass of bits and bytes. The second, a trippy onslaught of sliding and rotating dots and beeps, each representing a tiny piece of data all plotted together – too much for our mere human brains to comprehend but a lovely work of art, both complicated and minimalist, that hinted at the patterns hidden within the morass.
The main part of the exhibition carried a cautionary tone about how governments and other bodies are using our data, often in ways we are not generally aware of, or happy about.
There was definitely an anti-Orwellian warning to be had: you might want to think twice who you share that Instagram photo with. The possibility of data abuse is strong, and was highlighted in two displays. One where the artists had set up a fake dating website using unsecured Facebook profiles. Another where 3D models of people’s heads were constructed by taking the DNA from discarded chewing gum and cigarette butts!
Same data, different stories. Lives lost in the last Iraq war. The image on the left shows relative number of deaths by group, while the right shows deaths in chronological order. Dark Grey - Coalition forces, Light Grey - Iraqi forces, Orange - Civilians, Black - Iraqi Insurgents
A surprisingly delightful highlight was a chronicle of correspondence between two friends in London and New York. They each took turns to record their own form of data; whether it was what mood they were in that week, to how many 'thank yous' they received that day. The beauty of all this work was that it was all hand-drawn. In our work we strive to present everything with such exacting professionalism, so it was refreshing to see that seemingly trivial data can be presented in an unpolished way and be varied, engaging and charming. Their work can be found at http://www.dear-data.com/
One adventurous couple even recorded their entire sexual activity over a year. Displayed within a giant timeline, different coloured bars represented a particular sexual practice, whether together, alone or with a 3rd party. The general conclusion we drew from this is that South Americans have a very different sex life to us Brits!
Across the board, the exhibition reminded us that data can be presented in more ways than we can imagine and inspired us all to continue to break the usual formulae for data-vis and think beyond the pie chart. We felt that one thing was missing however...
As a team that spends a lot of time interpreting and visualising data, we found that there were very few solid conclusions to be had from the data on display. Some presented abstract shapes based on scientific data – but with little or no reference to what that data was, where it was from or whether the shapes formed meaningful patterns or trends. Others were more specific but still left out any analysis, which seemed a shame given the effort put into collecting the data in the first place.
Drawing conclusions from complex data is a particular strength across OPEN Health – a family of companies who generate, analyse, interpret, visualise and share data. We should continue to use our combined skills to make our data beautiful and meaningful at the same time.
So in the spirit of data visualisation here’s a brief summary of our visit: