Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
From cat maps to selfie analyses, a new exhibit in London showcases how the boom in easily available data has transformed our lives.
New data is generated every day. By researchers, sure. But also by us, whenever we upload a new photo or status update onto social media. To many, “data” conjures ideas of jumbled numbers and charts, too complicated understand. But what if it were illustrated?
The dozens of artists featured in “Big Bang Data,” a new interactive exhibit at Somerset House in London, have drawn it out for you: There’s a wall of seemingly endless code, a disturbingly detailed Google map plotting pet cats, a collection of globes documenting everything from TV ownership to refugee populations, and even a wall of purloined Facebook photos. The exhibit, which opened Wednesday and runs through February, aims to showcase how the boom in big data during the 21st century has documented and transformed our lives.
“For me, the most interesting thing is the amount of data you can get from posting something like a selfie is what people don’t really understand and don’t really think about it. There can be some quite serious consequences to posting all this data for everybody to see. We are defined by data in a way we have never been before.”
Here are just a few of the notable projects featured in the show.
“I Know Where Your Cat Lives”
Owen Mundy, a public-space and big-data researcher at Florida State University, knows exactly where your kitty—and you—live. And thanks to his 2014 “I Know Where Your Cat Lives” project, so can the rest of the world. Mundy mapped the exact location of 1 million cat pictures uploaded onto photo-sharing sites, using the geographic coordinates stored in the metadata.
It may appear that the felines are the stars of the entire experiment, but Mundy writes on his website that the map should also be a warning about just how easy it is to track someone through content uploaded onto social media. He told Vice news that the project was, in part, inspired by his daughter’s online behavior:
“I have a daughter and had been posting pictures of her on Instagram for about a year, and then I realized that Instagram had created a map of every picture I had been sharing with the world," Mundy said. "That scared me. So I thought, what's the least creepy, most fun way to do this? It's less likely someone is going to try to kidnap your cat, but, to a lot of people, their pets are like a child."
This 14-globe installation is part of the artist and journalist Ingo Gunther’s ongoing project “World Processor,” which began in 1988. He’s made over a thousand globes, using them to map out more than 400 different topics, including world population, debt, pollution, and shark attacks. The data comes from a variety of places, including the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Development.
“The topics are kind of limited to what the statistics can say about the planetary condition or the planetary reality, so [there are] so many other things that we cannot quantify,” he said in an interview. “But whatever we can quantify on a global level, that is what I’ve tried to show comparatively, sort of country by country.”
Face to Facebook
Visitors shouldn’t be too surprised if they find their own photo in “Face to Facebook,” a montage compiled by the artists Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico. The 2011 project also explores the notion of online privacy. Cirio and Ludovico essentially “stole” information from a million Facebook profiles and used facial-recognition software to categorize facial expressions on a fake dating website.
We all take selfies. In some we look cheerful; in others, we put on our best duckface. The installation is the latest addition to a 2014 project called “Selfiecity,” in which researchers analyzed thousands of selfies taken from public Instagram accounts.
The project then compared the selfies across different cities: Berlin, Bangkok, Sao Paolo, New York, Moscow, and now London. It found, for example, that people tended to smile more in Bangkok and Sao Paulo, Brazil. Londoners appeared the least happy in their selfies, accruing a score of only 0.55 on the happiness scale (with 1 being happiest and 0 being least happy), compared to the average of 0.62 across the other cities. It also found that people take fewer selfies than one might assume. In fact, selfies made up only 4 percent of the photos researchers analyzed; the rest were photos of things like cats (see above), food, and even shoes.
According to exhibitions director Claire Catterall, the lives of an entire generation have now been captured in data. “What has been fascinating about this project is to see how we all now quantify ourselves through this data we produce … and how this has changed the way we communicate with each other,” she told The Guardian.