Courtesy of Somerset House

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.

It’s also a reminder of just how public our data is, according to Claire Catterall, director of exhibitions at Somerset House, who recently spoke to The Guardian:

“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.

(Courtesy of Somerset House)

“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."

(Courtesy of Somerset House)

“World Processor”

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.”

(Courtesy of Somerset House)

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.

(Courtesy of Somerset House)

“SelfieCity” London

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A Soviet map of London, labeled in Russian.
    Maps

    The Soviet Military Secretly Mapped the Entire World

    These intricate, curious maps were supposed to be destroyed. The ones that remain reveal a fascinating portrait of how the U.S.S.R. monitored the world.

  2. A toxic site in Niagara Falls, New York, seen from above.
    Environment

    The Toxic 'Blank Spots' of Niagara Falls

    The region’s “chemical genies” of the early 20th century were heralded as reaching into the future to create a more abundant life for all. Instead, they deprived future generations of their health and well-being.

  3. Equity

    Vandals Are Attacking Berlin's Powerful Citywide Holocaust Memorial

    Germany’s Stolpersteine monuments show how a historic force of terror unfurled on the same streets people walk down today. Their disappearance is cause for concern.

  4. A collage of postcards and palms trees of the Florida shore
    Environment

    The Archaeologists Saving Miami's History From the Sea

    As the water level rises, more than 16,000 historic sites across Florida are at risk of being drowned by waves. In Miami-Dade County, researchers are working to keep history on solid ground.

  5. Equity

    The Story Behind the Housing Meme That Swept the Internet

    How a popular meme about neoliberal capitalism and fast-casual architecture owned itself.