Information Explosion: Big Bang Data at Somerset House

Emily Spary reviews ‘Big Bang Data’ at Somerset House, an exhibition which explores the role of data in the Digital Age, and indeed, in our everyday lives. 

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The explosion of data into our lives has fundamentally shaped all that we do in this Digital Age. Daily, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created, and we have generated 90% of the world’s data in the last two years alone [1]. Data is everywhere.  Big Bang Data is a multi-media exhibition attempting to explore this ‘datafication of our world’, presenting the dangers and the potential advantages that data could bring to our lives.

Data can be produced from an endless number of sources, from posting a tweet, to tapping an oyster card, to recording our emotions. The amalgamation of large volumes of information is known, simply, as ‘big data’, a concept which emerged in the 1990s. Not merely a matter of size or volume, big data is concerned with the emerging ways this data can be captured, managed and subsequently curated. Wandering through the exhibition illustrates how presenting big data in innovative, interesting ways can reveal hidden characteristics and inequalities in our society. ‘Debtris’ by David McCandless (2010) takes a novel approach; a game of Tetris reimagines national debts and UK government spending figures, putting these numbers in context and exposing some unexpected truths. Data visualization, however, is more than simply a tool for understanding; it has become an art form, often transforming complex data sets into objects of beauty [2].

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The topic of big data forms part of ongoing research at UCL, demonstrated by the launch of the Big Data Institute in 2013 [3]. Aiming to improve the experience of the process of research, the Institute investigates new technologies and methods that can be applied to academic data. Perhaps closer to a geographical discipline, UCL’s Urban Laboratory focuses on ‘Data and Place’ exploring the role of the digital in urban life, to see how it shapes and defines our relationship to the city and each other [4]. GIS technologies can be used for mining social data, producing new understandings of the city, as UCL geographer Dr James Cheshire presented in his book of original maps and graphics, London: The Information Capital, co-authored with Oliver Uberti [5].

Big Bang Data explores the massive potential of data in London, where ‘data per capita’ is produced in huge volumes daily. Part of the exhibition, titled What will your London be like in 2036?, allows you to create the London you want for the future. Using data modelling techniques based on existing information collected in London, you can manipulate issues surrounding housing, climate, politics and more. This engaging display highlights how ‘through our data, we can discover narratives about who we are, how we live, and what our city might become’.

Yet the exhibition soon reminds you that data is not solely a force for good. Snippets of documentaries and engaging visuals make you think again about how the data you produce – messages, photos and movements tracked by your smartphone – is stored, accessed and potentially manipulated. Laura Poitras’ The Program is audible through the exhibition space, profiling William Binney, a veteran of the National Security Agency, who provides a chilling account of the agency’s role in the mass surveillance of personal data in America.

Big Bang Data is well designed, clearly leading you through the different dimensions of the Digital Age, using fantastic graphics with a number of interactive elements. Although the exhibition may not offer all the solutions to the dangers of an increasingly data saturated society, it is definitely worth a visit. It is certainly thought-provoking, asking the important questions about the role of data in our modern lives.

Catch it before it ends! Big Bang Data is running until 20th March 2016 at Somerset House. Ticket concessions for students are available.

See the exhibition website here: www.bigbangdata.somersethouse.org.uk

Footnotes

[1] https://www-01.ibm.com/software/in/data/bigdata/

[2] https://www.ted.com/playlists/201/art_from_data

[3] http://www.ucl.ac.uk/big-data/bdi

[4] http://www.ucl.ac.uk/urbanlab/research

[5] http://theinformationcapital.com/

[Other quotes from exhibition]

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