The world’s largest data visualization

The Affinity Map created for the ENAC Research Day at EPFL, Switzerland (with me)

On the 9th of May I delivered the largest visualization of my life. It was a data visualization measuring more than 220 square metres, which I believe is the biggest in the entire world.

When I understood that data visualizations were not meant to stay on screens, that was an epiphany.

I started practicing data visualization at the médialab of Sciences Po, the laboratory of Bruno Latour in Paris. Two years later, I moved to EPFL in Switzerland. There, visualizations evolved into bigger and more complex products. Since presentations with laptops and projectors were often clumsy, I simply began printing visualizations on paper. First A4 and A3, but then I discovered that EPFL offered to print A0 for free — that was the signal of my epiphany.

The same year, through a budget made available by the Digital Humanities 2014, I proposed to my professor Frédéric Kaplan that I create a big visualization comprised of all the authors attending the conference. Initially we thought we could print a giant poster to stick onto the wall, but it was forbidden at the brand new SwissTech Convention Centre. For that reason we created a carpet of 30 square metres instead; no damages would be caused by placing a visualization in the form of carpet.

The conference was a success and the carpet was very much appreciated. The authors were playing with the visualization, searching for themselves and their colleagues, taking photos, and publishing the photos on Twitter.

I don’t know exactly when my passion for large installations started, but I am pretty sure that it is related to my interest in contemporary art. In my life two artworks shocked me, and both were gigantic. One was in the desert of Arizona, close to Flagstaff, where James Turrell bought a volcano to build a site-specific landscape art installation (you can visit it). The other was in the center of Paris when Anish Kapoor exhibited the Leviathan at the Grand Palais; this was a 40-meter tall inflated sculpture that you could visit during the Monumenta of 2011. Both artworks were awesome. As an interaction designer I was fascinated, in particular, by the way people could interact with them, which was something totally new and different. In front of a painting you have to move to see colors changing through light, and the same goes for observing a sculpture. However, when interacting with the Leviathan of Anish Kapoor you had to walk through it, so it was like visiting a village — the more you walk, the more you understand the space.

220 square meter visualization

Two years later at the Digital Humanities 2014 conference, I transformed my scientific research into an even bigger visualization. Using a tarpaulin for trucks I created a 220 square meter visualization — probably the world’s largest data visualization.

The opportunity for this arose during the ENAC Research Day. The carpet for that event also displayed scholars. Indeed ENAC scholars were arranged according to collaborations, showing the natural patterns emerging among laboratories, institutes and the scholars themselves. The data visualization was placed in a large hall with three floors, which allowed two kinds of interactions — either by looking at the entire image from the balconies, or by simply walking on the carpet reading the visualization more closely.

Zoom at human scale

I am always reminded of the mantra of the guru of Human-computer interaction, Ben Shneiderman, who said, “Overview first, zoom and filter, then details-on-demand.” The large visualization at the ENAC Research Day reflected this, the overview was available from the balconies, while the details were visible by walking on the carpet — the zoom was not activated by a digital interface, the zoom was at human scale. This visualization was really appreciated by the audience, who walked around and took pictures similar to the first experiment.

I would like to conclude this short text from an ecological perspective. What about the 220 square metres of tarpaulin from trucks that we used? Well, this for the moment is still an active project, and a successful one. As I said, the visualization is produced in Switzerland. This country may be widely known for their chocolate and cheese, but there is also an eco-friendly company named Freitag that had a great idea: to produce bags from unused tarpaulin from trucks, just like our project. So, in a couple of years, when it will come time for a new visualization, we will repurpose the old one into bags to give as gifts.