5 Things To Learn about Big Data from Jer Thorp, Data Artist

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture
COCA data-artist-in-residence Jer Thorp. Photo courtesy of COCA.

COCA data-artist-in-residence Jer Thorp. Photo courtesy of COCA.

Big data is a portrait of us: National Geographic’s complex infographics, or maybe the ones in Wired or the New York Times, seek to illustrate the numbers, to make them not only relatable but engaging. Something, maybe, to even text home about or tweet—moves that are tracked and then maybe even turned into data again. Big data—and the ways to represent it—is an evolving, complex, fascinating world that, as with any brave new frontier, simultaneously brings up questions about where boundaries occur for people, scientists, governments and corporations.

One of the people who analyzes this data and then turns it in to descriptive art for leading publications, such as the New York Times and Wired UK, is world-renowned data artist and COCA data-artist-in-residence Jer Thorp. He addressed St. Louisans at COCAbiz Thursday morning in a smart, info-filled, witty lecture about how “big data”—those numbers that attempt to define, illustrate and explain the human condition—is portrayed in art, and his thinking on how to make these numbers engaging.

Takeaways? Many, but here are a few favorites:

  1. Data itself is not human. What creates the data is. Thorp says that all too often, governments and companies base their decisions on collected data and statistics. But those are only numbers and figures—not the humans who, in a way, underwrite it. Base decisions on the humans who create the data, not the data itself.
    Thorp expanded on this by flashing three sets of numbers on screen: old location-tracking coordinates from his iPhone. They looked like any strange combination of number and letters (aside from the iPhone model listed at the end), but they carried significance for Thorp: The first was the exact spot where he touched ground for the first time at JFK after moving from Canada. The second was the coordinates of the restaurant where he had his first meal in America. The third? The location he first set eyes on his girlfriend—the exact spot in the apartment hallway (aww). “Data is a record of the moment,” Thorp said. “These moments are our lives.” 
  2. Good infographics = 1/2 Ooh + 1/2 Ahh. For anyone in the design fields, Thorp’s design principle is pretty solid: Good infographics should be one-half “Ooh”—pretty to look at, well-designed—and one-half “Ahh”—that is, enlightening and educational. Too much in either extreme, and they’re not doing their job.
  3. Question data. No matter how pretty the chart, look at it. Prod it. Pick at loose ends. See if it holds up—especially if you’re using it to make large decisions (in which case, see No. 1).  There is a certain amount of human error in data collection (ex: On a route-mapping project, users’ location-tracking services could be switched off intermittently, throwing off data), a certain amount of human error in data analysis (biases, preconceptions) and a certain amount of human error in interpreting it. One case Thorp mentioned was a study using tweets with “negative sentiment” to find Manhattan’s saddest spot. It turned out to be an elite public high school—until it was discovered that the researchers had gotten their data wrong and it was actually a spot a couple blocks away.
  4. Free apps make their money from your data. If you’ve ever downloaded a free app that has no need to ask for your location but does it anyway, it’s because it’s making its money selling that location data to advertisers, Thorp says.
  5. Expect the way you interact with data to change. “How could we interact with data if we could interact with it like the we do the world?” Thorp asked, as he showed a clip of a researcher using sensored gloves to manipulate data projection on screen. How we interact with data now, according to a friend of Thorp? We wrap our hand around a mouse as if it were a club.

COCAbiz is the business training arm of COCA that aims to connect the arts to questions in business and technology. The next COCAbiz event, on Nov. 13, is a bizLAB Intensive: Artful Speaker, which uses techniques from artists to develop public speaking skills.

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