Art is the Missing Link for Understanding Data| 3 Reactions to NYC Open Data Week

Experimental Civics

There I was shaking off the cold at a reception called “Data Through Design” at New Lab based in Brooklyn. I had purposely kept myself aloof prior to the event so I could focus on my true, raw reactions to what I saw. Here are my top three reactions.

Data Through Design is an annual exhibition celebrating creative tangible and multimedia expressions of New York City’s Open Data. The exhibit was founded to enable curious makers to create novel methods of data representation, present new narrative perspectives, and develop a deeper understanding of life in the city using data as a medium.

Credit: NYC Open Data

In computing, NaN, standing for not a number, is a numeric data type value representing an undefined or unrepresentable value. The theme this year was “Not a Number” to speak to the ways in which space and place are being transformed and shaped by numbers meant to represent (sometimes unrepresentable) complexity in the everyday.

They had asked artists to reflect on the stories within the city’s open data that could speak to the undefined or unrepresentable value of the things that the data may be hiding.

Exhibiting artists include:@KarlMunstedt, Stephanie Luu & Andrew Lin, Nicolas Grefenstette & Pierre Depaz, @achimkoh & @wonyoungso, @_weliveincities, @amengote. @ericjforman, @mollieruskin & @msknee, @itayniv & Aiden Nelson.

Photo Credit: Sarah Sharif

It was fascinating to walk around the room and listen to the conversations around the exhibits which had hanging white lamps to interactive touchscreen tables to live printing.

Visualize The Numbers

This topic of conversation came up in various different ways around the room and across the exhibits, but it was always fascinating to listen to the reactions around the numbers displayed, ex: how many births happen on a given day in New York City. I can’t think of a time when I’ve stopped to think about those numbers.

I know after a certain number of individuals, our brains have a hard time actually visualizing how many physical bodies make up 1,000 people, but I know these statistics share our truth and tell the story of humanity in special ways.

Take a look at this image from The Weather Report article on how many humans can the Earth support. How many humans can you count?

Credit: The Weather Report

Check out the Summary of Vital Statistics 2016 in the City of New York. They have lovely infographics to help you visualize what the data is sharing and there are so many stories in the metrics.

I raise all of these comments in regards to one exhibit at the event which had images of newborn babies with placard showing the number of live births over a 12-month period and you could pick up a phone and listen to the voices of women who had just become mothers. We forget how many other folks are on this planet and our responsibility to each other regardless of where we currently live or where we are from. The exhibit was certainly a trigger in thinking about how we (humanity) have many new lives to take care of.

There Is No Air Outside

Another cool exhibit showed where the trees, vegetation, plants, and all the green living things were in New York City. The exhibit was also showcasing various commutes that New Yorkers were taking across the city, but the conversations around this were fun.

Do you know how many trees are supplying you with oxygen right now?

Do you know what you are breathing on a day-by-day basis? Is that really fresh air?

I think it was fascinating to talk with people who were from the area or were visiting or had just moved and everyone had accepted the fact that there was just no air.

What I really loved about this exhibit was the interactive design of this table where we could all gather around, play with the screen in turns, and as we waited, we discussed what we thought the data was showing us.

Photo Credit: Sarah Sharif

On a tangent of a tangent, I was just at a friend’s wedding last weekend in San Francisco and we were at the Academy of Sciences where I had read how rainforests supply 12% of the world’s oxygen.

It’s been a recurring theme in the back of my mind…where we do plan to get our oxygen from? Will this planet turn into a scene from Wall-E and we’re unable to even breathe on this planet once all the ecosystems which supply it are destroyed? I mean, look at that smog, just what I want to fill my lungs with.

Credit: Disney Wall-E

Say It With Art

As a creative, and primarily audio learner, I know that we all learn in different ways, and the beauty of art is that it can speak to larger concepts in a simple medium. I don’t have to sit and scrub numbers in an excel file or read an official document or listen to a lecture by an expert… but I can see it, feel it, understand it, question it, and spark my own curiosity, just by experiencing it myself in a new format.

I know we don’t have enough artists in the data visualization realm and I know that it’s not an easy feat to build exhibits around these topics, but I absolutely loved this concept.

Oh, us humans, we love to play, we love to be curious, we love surprises, and we love the challenge of exploring. I would encourage those who have amazing data sets and analytics to try sharing their story with and through art. Partner with local student art groups or other community collectives and see if there is a possibility to showcase your data story in a different light?

To close, I feel that in order to get everyone on board with data, understanding everything from ownership, rights to policy, we need to continue to find ways to entice others to learn about it. I feel that art is the perfect medium for sparking the curiosity we will need to make positive changes in this space.

I had an amazing time at this event, feel free to check out: https://www.open-data.nyc/ for more information and I’m exciting for how this collaboration can grow in the future. If you know of cool events like this or have ideas yourself, feel free to comment below!

Experimental Civics

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We design spaces for people to experiment with their ideas. experimentalcivics.io

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