A provocative, eye-opening, example-laden exploration of our current and future relationship with data
In the fall of 2009, the data artist Jer Thorp wrote a pair of algorithms to inscribe names on the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan. The project involved designing a layout that allowed for "meaningful adjacencies"--family members, business partners, coworkers--to be etched into the bronze in close proximity. Thorp presented his results in competition against another team, a group of financial analysts who had also been working on the problem.
The analysts were confident they'd found the most highly optimized solution--a maximum of about 93 percent of the adjacencies could be satisfied--when Thorp, a long-haired artist working on an old broken laptop, presented his layout: it was 99.99 percent solved. The analysts, it turned out, had looked at the data but not at how the data was to be represented. But Thorp considered each name as a unique unit in a real system. He'd solved a data problem by honoring the people from whom the data came, as well as the world in which that data would live.
The memorial project represents Thorp's approach to data as a rich medium for personal and community growth. This human-centered approach has defined his work, from The New York Times
to the Museum of Modern Art to the Library of Congress; from a submarine at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico to a boat in the middle of Africa's Okavango Delta; from Manchester's town hall to an abandoned school in St. Louis's north side.
In Living in Data
, Thorp proves that thinking about data in a human context makes us better problem solvers and builds a healthier relationship between us and our data--one that puts our well-being front and center--and that there is a path forward beyond the extractive, impersonal nature of the "big data" era.
About the Author
Jer Thorp is one of the world's foremost data artists and a leading voice for the ethical use of big data. He was The New York Times' first data artist in residence and has served as the innovator in residence at the Library of Congress. His data-inspired artwork has been shown around the world and has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Scientific American, The New Yorker, Popular Science, Fast Company, Business Week, Discover, Wired, and The Harvard Business Review. Thorp is an adjunct professor in New York University's renowned Interactive Telecommunications Program, and is the cofounder of the Office for Creative Research. He lives in New York City. Living in Data is his first book.