Data visualization is cropping up everywhere these days – even in citadels of art.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art is the latest place to showcase what you can do with data. Its “Talk to Me” exhibit, about how people and things communicate with each other (on until November 7) features a number of outstanding data visualizations intended to help make life better, easier or more understandable – from the mapping of taxi movements in Lisbon to Pitch Interactive‘s depiction of complaint calls in New York to the classic TheyRule project (that helped inspire the WhoRunsHK database at the South China Morning Post). Not that all of it is high tech: There’s also a set of icons meant to help homeless people communicate with each other – via drawings in chalk – about good places to sleep, find food, etc.
Not that far away, over at the Lincoln Center, IBM has built a digital wall that shows off a range of visual data, from traffic patterns along Broadway to pollution levels at various places in the city to the amount of sunlight on roofs in the city. That all leads into another display that walks people through a history of data analysis and new directions in the field. It’s more of an introduction that a deep dive into data, but it’s a great way to get up to speed quickly on a lot of the things that are going on. Plus, it’s free.
And not that long ago, I visited a similarly cool exhibit at Singapore’s Art Museum that showcased a handful of visualizations – traffic patterns of cabs in clear and rainy weather; a map of Singapore distorted to show distances as a function of travel times; cellphone usage across the country; and so on. (It only ran until May, unfortunately.)
None of this seems like fantastic art – unless you’re a data geek, in which case some of this was eerily beautiful. But what it really shows is how much data is out there, how much can be captured, and then the many different ways it can be looked at and analyzed. And while not all of it was immediately useful, it hinted at all kinds of potential insights and uses – figuring out more efficient traffic management systems, for example, or the best locations to site solar panels in New York City – that would have been extremely hard to surface without reams of data and visualization software.
Much of the information highlighted deals with “data exhaust”: Not the data we often think about getting, such as GDP or government budgets, but the data that comes from the byproduct of modern living – building temperatures, taxi routes and cellphone locations, etc. There’s tons of it – and in some ways it’s more accurate (or truthful) than numbers that are sometimes cooked up to meet political or other pressures.
What’s also striking is the absence of media organizations in the displays. That’s not surprising in some ways – the spread of software and much easier availability of technology has democratized the analysis and publication of such information. But it’s another reminder that newsrooms don’t have any kind of monopoly on even high-end analysis of information. It isn’t enough just to do good work; we have to do it consistently and regularly – at least if we want to stay in business. It’s as much craft as it is art.