In 1869, French engineer Charles Joseph Minard completed a chart depicting Napoleon’s 1812-1813 campaign against Russia: 422,000 French Army soldiers marched off to war in 1812; 10,000 returned home in 1813. The broad brown band in the chart shrinks to a thin line, representing the loss of French Army soldiers over time. It’s a graphic river of diminishing lives.
Minard’s artwork was an early entry in the field of infographics: the visual display of quantitative information. In the Napoleonic era, numbers and letters were transcribed by hand — a bare trickle compared to the river of data coursing through today’s server farms, mobile devices and home computers, not to mention the mainframes maintained by the alphabet agencies of the surveillance state. The “eyes only” information of the latter is off the table, yet there are petabytes of data to play with in the nonclassified world.
Government bureaucrats, business executives and NGO workers find a growing need to tame their Excel spreadsheets, web logs analytics and more. This is where the “cultural creatives” come in. Last week local graphic artists, bloggers, code jockeys, instructors and intrigued hipsters gathered at The Ironworks on Alexander Street to hear a sold-out talk by one of Charles Minard’s intellectual descendants. (The talk was part of the Practivism series held by the B.C. chapter of the Society of Graphic Designers Canada.)
Jer Thorp is an artist and educator originally from Vancouver. According to the bio on his website, his digital work “explores the boundaries between science, data, art, and culture. Recently, his work has been featured by The Guardian, Scientific American, The New Yorker, and Popular Science.” From 2010 to 2012, the bearded, bespectacled whiz was the Data Artist in Residence at the New York Times.
Explaining what designers can do with data, Thorp tells the crowd about NASA’s Kepler project, a satellite observatory that has mapped an area of the sky “about the size of your outstretched hand.” With the aid of supercomputers, scientists have discovered tiny, periodic fluctuations in the light of individual stars. The dimming is believed to be from the transit of orbiting planets, across the line of sight.
This small patch of sky has yielded 134 confirmed exoplanets and more than 3,000 “unconfirmed planet candidates.” Extrapolating from this data, astronomers have concluded that our galaxy alone may have 40 billion Earth-like planets orbiting in life-friendly “habitable zones.” And here’s where the data visualization comes in. With the help of another programmer, Thorp took the Kepler figures and created a visualization that displays a few thousand extrasolar objects, from small rocky planets to huge gas giants, in 3D orbit around one imaginary star. The planets can be arranged visually by all sorts of parameters and spun like a top with a swipe of the hand.
You don’t have to be NASA scientist to do such things; a good laptop, the right software, and a steep learning curve are all someone needs to process immense volumes of data into eye candy graphics and YouTube-friendly animations. There’s a gold rush on right now with so-called “big data,” and graphic designers are the go-to smelters. The creative possibilities for business, art and activism are endless; Thorp mentions how a group of Scandinavian designers used a laser to project air quality readings on the plume of a smokestack.
Several years ago, while working with MAC addresses and geotags provided by a mobile phone provider, the designer quickly understood the power attached to visualizing data. “I felt like I was looking at numbers in the Matrix,” he confesses.
“Data rarely speaks the truth, it speaks an approximation of the truth,” Thorp said, drawing attention to a recent “sentiment analysis” using Twitter that supposedly identified the “saddest areas” in New York City (presumably a discovery that would bum out its residents even further). The study, which was published and then discounted by the New York Times, turned out to be completely flawed on multiple levels, including a small sample size and mistaken GPS coordinates. In other words, the “garbage in, garbage out” principle still prevails.
Thorp and his number-crunching colleagues are not always measuring inanimate objects, but living human beings, the designer cautions. Or as sociologist William Bruce Cameron once observed, “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
The Vancouver Courier, Dec. 6