Last year I attended a talk by Jer Thorp, a man who introduces himself as “Data Artist in Residence” at the New York Times. Working with the often dry, colourless subject matter of data, the humanity and vibrancy that defines his approach is nothing short of miraculous.
And at the core of that mastery is his assertion that all data carries weight.
A perfect example of this mantra can be seen in a piece of work he created for New York City. To position the names of the nearly 3,000 people who died on 9/11 on the Manhattan Memorial, he produced an algorithm that grouped people by affinity: cops with cops; friends with friends; and members of each flight together – so that when family members came to find their loved one’s name, it was surrounded by people from that person’s life.
“This project was a very real reminder that information carries weight. While names of the dead may be the heaviest data of all, almost every number or word we work with bears some link to a significant piece of the real world.”
It’s easy enough to analyse sets of data (census information, earthquake records, homelessness figures or even Twitter posts) but even easier to forget that the numbers represent real lives. As designers, artists and researchers, we should always consider the source of data and the human value it carries.
Ross Penlington is an interactive designer and developer at Mason Zimbler