Today’s world contains an unimaginable amount of digital data – and that data is growing bigger and faster, all the time. In 2009, we had produced the same quantity of data as in the total history of humanity to that point. Artists and scientists are mapping that data to make it visible to the human eye.
By 2012, it was estimated that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data was created every day. We are all adding to it, often without realizing it, as our daily activities are recorded by CCTV, mobile phone calls and texts, the GPS in our cars, electronic payments, internet searches and social media.
A new exhibition, Big Bang Data, at Somerset House in London sets out to chart the staggering proliferation of electronic information, and to offer ways to comprehend its sheer scale and complexity through data mapping and other forms of visualisation. And, in the light of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden’s revelations, it also explores its implications for our security and privacy.
The exponential increase in the quantity of data over the past half century is powerfully demonstrated by a timeline of storage devices. Starting with 1950s punch cards, which contained the equivalent of 0.08MB of data, it progressed through a reel-to-reel tape (0.85MB), a cassette tape (1.4MB), a 1990s floppy disk (1.4MB), and the CD-R (700MB) to today’s flash disks with their staggering 16GB of storage.
More and more, however, we entrust our data not to storage devices but to the ‘cloud’ The concept is literally a nebulous one. It sounds fluffy and friendly, and we think of the data we put on Instagram, Dropbox or the iCloud as being somewhere ‘up there’. Yet our digital information has a physical presence in the real world, on servers located in industrial parks and connected by submarine cables. And, as the Ashley Madison scandal revealed, it can be accessed by anyone who knows how.
A submarine cable map by Markus Krisetya, Larry Lairson and Alan Mauldin reveals the physical reality of the Internet – the global network of fibre-optic cables that lie beneath the sea.
Ingrid Burrington and Dan Williams’s printed map Networks of London shows the hidden data infrastructure at three London locations: the Stock Exchange, Canary Wharf, and the streets around Somerset House itself. Produced during one week in November, the map traces the routes of fibre-optic cables and the locations of utility cabinets, access covers, CCTV camera and transmitters.
Specially created for the Big Bang Data exhibition, selfiecity London analyses the style of selfies. A team of art historians, designers and data scientists have assembled a random selection of 140,000 Instagram selfies taken in London and turned them into interactive media visualisations. Visitors can compare them to selfies taken in New York, Berlin and Bangkok. It turns out that London has a higher proportion of women taking selfies, more people wearing glasses, and more restrained poses. Face recognition software registers the mood of the subject – and yes, Londoners are the most miserable.
Perhaps they’re worried about the security of their data. The London Situation Room, a collaboration between Future Cities Catapult and the data visualization studio Tekja, provides a hub of data activity in the city, in real time. Instagram posts, located by geography, burst out of the screen, Tweets appear on a map of the city, and people’s movements, tracked by TfL, are shown.
If that’s a shade unnerving, the website I Know Where Your Cat Lives maps the locations of cats across the world, based on metadata embedded in photographs posted on social media and tagged with the word ‘cat’.
It might seem like a bit of harmless fun, but it has a serious purpose, and one that should concern us. Owen Mundy, an art professor at Florida State University, first thought of the project when he found that photographs of his three-year-old daughter posted on social media had their location embedded without his realising.
He created the website to point out how readily available social media users’ physical locations are to the general public. If the users increase their privacy settings, the pictures of their pets are taken down.
Data for the Common Good
While data can be an instrument of surveillance by government and big business, it can also be a powerful instrument for social change. This is nothing new, and the show offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of data mapping. An engraving of the British slave ship The Brookes, published in Plymouth in 1788, graphically demonstrated the appalling overcrowding aboard, and did much to advance the abolitionist cause. In 1855, the London doctor John Snow plotted cases of cholera on map, allowing its source to be identified to a particular stand-pump. And three years later, Florence Nightingale published her Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East, which did much to reduce the number of preventable deaths.
Our capacity to process mind-boggling amounts of data now allows citizens, communities and institutions to shape the future for the common good. Zooniverse, the world’s largest crowd-sourced science project, enables anyone to classify large scientific datasets projects; more than a million users are now helping to analyse data from NASA’s mission to spot stars in the early stages of forming planetary systems, and Cancer Research’s work targeting cancer cells from microscope slides. We Need Us, by Julie Freeman, is a real-time, animated artwork powered by Zooniverse users. Each time a volunteer helps to classify data, the shapes and sounds of the work change, reminding us that behind our bewildering proliferation of data technology lie human ambitions, aspirations and hopes for the future.
Big Bang Data can be seen at Somerset House, London, until 20 March 2016