Flight Patterns ©

Aaron Koblin

Five artists using big data

We generate 2.5 quintillion – or 2.5 million trillion – bytes of data that record our online activity each day: an inconceivable amount. With recent advances in technology and over 4.2 billion people using the World Wide Web today, the volume of data being produced, collected and stored has never been greater. 

As a raw digital material, data may seem dry and inaccessible, but it has given rise to a new type of artist. Data artists specialise in making the unseen visible through artworks, using innovative data visualisation techniques to show the viewer something that the numbers alone cannot. Many source their raw data from the web, while others take offline data and use the web to turn it into something accessible, and often beautiful.

Moritz Stefaner

Moritz Stefaner is a data artist from Germany practicing, as he states on his website, 'on the crossroads of data visualisation, information aesthetics and user-interface design'. Much of Stefaner’s work draws on the widespread use of social networks and smartphone cameras that has defined the 21st century so far. 

As part of the 123 Data exhibition at the Fondation EDF in Paris, Stefaner presented Multiplicity, a collective photographic city portrait created using social media data. For this interactive installation, Stefaner and the project team used machine learning techniques, where a computer self-learns from data, identifies patterns and makes decisions with minimal human intervention. Through this process the computer arranged a sample – from 6.2 million location-tagged photos uploaded to social media in Paris in 2017 – into clusters. The resulting digital tapestry was projected around the exhibition space for visitors to explore.

Similar images taken at specific locations around the city, such as La Grande Roue (the Big Wheel) at Place de la Concorde, were grouped together, bringing to light recurring visual motifs and showing the similarities in the ways that people see and document the world around them.

Nathalie Miebach

Nathalie Miebach is an American data artist who works at the intersection of art and science, translating weather data into complex sculptures and musical scores.

With the web as her main source, Miebach collects geophysical data points such as high-tide marks, water temperatures and wind speeds. Using her own methodology, Miebach translates this data into musical scores, creating sheet music for orchestras. From these scores, Miebach then builds three-dimensional grids to give the data complex sculptural forms.

As Miebach explains: 'The power of data lies in its poetic quality; it is so much more than a number. I use sculpture to visualise the nuances of weather, in a way that a traditional scientific graph cannot.'

Aaron Koblin

In a TED Talk about his work, Aaron Koblin explains his belief that 'data can make us more human' – his project Flight Patterns demonstrates this. To create the work, Koblin processed vast amounts of the US Federal Aviation Administration's flight data to illustrate the paths of air traffic over North America. In the video below, you can see how individual flight paths appear as a single coloured line, creating complex and colourful moving webs. The patterns that emerge visualise human behavior, suggesting that, in spite of the advanced technology used for air travel, we remain governed by the rules of nature.

Koblin’s work consistently pushes the boundaries of data visualisation, from his interactive map created from SMS messages sent on New Year’s Eve in Amsterdam, to a project illustrating the volume of long-distance telephone and IP (Internet Protocol) data flowing between New York and other international cities.

Antartic Explorer ©

Nathalie Miebach

A Selfless Society, 2016 ©

Julie Freeman

Paolo Cirio

Paolo Cirio is an Italian conceptual artist who uses publicly available data to raise awareness about social issues and present a cultural commentary on the politics of data.

In his work Obscurity, Cirio addresses the exploitative practices of companies that publish the personal information and photos of people accused of crimes on the web, regardless of offence, circumstance and court ruling, and then charge extortionate fees for them to be removed. For his piece, Cirio blurred 15 million police photographs of people arrested in the US, taken from six different culpable companies, which he then exhibited on a dedicated website.

Through Obscurity, the artist highlights what he sees as the injustice of this practice and poses questions about wider social issues, such as economic inequality, a lack of mental health services and racial discrimination. The project received such a positive response that it sparked a new campaign – Right2Remove – led by a community of lawyers, journalists and activists, to introduce the right to remove sensitive information from search engines in the US.

Julie Freeman

Julie Freeman has a PhD in Media Arts Technology and her work experiments with the ways in which scientific data can be used across art and science. Her web project Rodent Activity Transmission (RAT) broadcasts visualisations of real-time behavioural data gathered from a colony of mole rats. One of the resulting audio-visual artworks, A Selfless Society, interprets the mole rats’ behaviours, bringing the creatures’ unpredictability to the piece and creating an effect that could not be anticipated or synthesised.

Take a look at the project on the RAT systems website or app.

As we observe the colony’s activity patterns, we are invited to consider new social models for family and society. What would it be like to be eusocial – living in a society where labour and childcare is shared amongst the group – like the colony? How might this alter our expectations of our own gender identities, actions or motivations?

Although these artists work with data from different sources, they all aim to visualise challenging concepts and inform the viewer about the world around them. They make the unfathomable meaningful to us, showing us just how big our world is, and how connected we are to each other through the web.

See also

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