Data Through Design Exhibit: A Tactile Take on Open Data

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Sam Hyatt

Data Through Design, a newly installed art exhibit created in honor of NYC’s Open Data Week, offers data enthusiasts a rare treat: a tactile encounter with open data.

Municipal data, where available, comes mostly in neat, comma-separated rows. Sometimes, it is transformed into lines and circles, its stories served up on gridlines, garnished sparingly with the appropriate annotations. But even in the most inviting of circumstances, open data seldom asks its audience to reach out and touch. Data Through Design, open to visitors until the end of this week at the NY Media Center, does just that.

Hosted by Enigma, CARTO and the Pratt SAVI (with sponsorship support by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation), the temporary exhibit showcases eight projects that pose a number of central questions about life and death in New York City.

Data Through Design is an endeavor to view New York City through the prism of open data. The projects take a range of approaches using the city’s datasets as a starting point, with the larger proportion seeking to represent the chosen datasets in a novel manner. A few challenge us to think critically about the endeavor of open data and the insights it brings.

New ways of seeing

Of the works that seek to experiment with new forms of data visualization, Ellen Oh’s Slow Down and Jill Hubley’s Broken Windows & Pick Tickets stand out.

Oh’s Slow Down features a set of eight neon-yellow acrylic panels, each with a map of New York City and a year’s worth of collision data. A number of magenta cylinders dot the surface of each map, one for every fatal collision. The panels are transparent, allowing the viewer to see the scatter of accidents for each successive year. The markers on the map never quite line up with each other, and disturbingly, look like bright bullets suspended in space, always rushing towards the body of the city.

Data Through Design 2

Sam Hyatt

The choice of color, borrowing from traffic signs meant to alert those on the road to oncoming danger, creates a chaos of neon. The effect is disorienting in a way that feels critical to the message of the piece. The lack of pattern to the traffic deaths across the city, especially viewed in the cumulative, is troubling, but Oh is unequivocal about a solution that doubles as the piece’s title: slow down.

Broken Windows & Pick Tickets considers how crime is policed throughout the city. Hubley has constructed a wooden pergola poised over a map of NYC police precincts. Bunches of parachute cords hang over every precinct, with each bunch containing color-coded cords that correspond to particular city violations. The lengths of the cords are logarithmically scaled to the number of criminal court summons for that precinct: some are too short to properly dangle, while others trail along the floor. Visitors are invited to move through the piece and touch the cords that represent everything from jaywalking to loitering while wearing a mask.

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Sam Hyatt

The colors and patterns of the cords recall the bolder patterns and textures of statistical atlases of Reconstruction-era America. The cords are complemented with something a bit more modern and a bit more familiar: a mounted iPad displaying small multiples of area charts. The charts show the same data, grouped by either precinct or violation type. The interactive also contains additional information about its more experimental counterpart—including a key to the cords and a few highlights of what Hubley felt stood out about the data.

For both Oh and Hubley, their experiments in data visualization elevate the encounter with the data to a visual confrontation. The physicality of their works impresses upon the viewer in a way that feels wholly different from digital interactions with data. For Hubley’s project, one cannot help but imagine the painstaking process by which she had to cut and organize the bands of violations for each of the precincts of the city. Oh, also, had to manually insert small acrylic pegs for every traffic fatality represented in her maps.

The exhibit as a whole does not shy away from heavier topics. In addition to Slow Down, two other projects deal explicitly with death (How We Die and Life andDeath in the Built Environment). Another descriptively titled, The Time and Place of Sexual Trauma, displays an LED calendar of dots that light up in eerie synchronicity with a ticking 24-hour clock to signal the reports of sexual violence submitted for that hour and day.

For Jessie Braden, director of Pratt SAVI and one of the organizers of Data Through Design, the choice in subject matter speaks to the issues we face as a large, urban city. For the audience, it may be a reminder of parts of the city we may choose to forget.

Open data, open questions

Some of the projects ask viewers to question how we use open data. Mathura Govindarajan and Davíd Lockard’s What Our Numbers Don’t Show: The Story of Data Misinterpretation, features a number of deliberate misinterpretations of several NYC datasets. Their message is presented through a series of comedic videos that are housed in a seafoam cabinet with big, friendly arcade-style buttons that match to a selection of misinterpretations. The chosen errors are modeled after common misuses of data: mistaking causation for correlation, selecting the prefered answer to a problem by reshaping a modifiable areal unit, overfitting data to jump to oddly specific predictions, and others.

The piece points to how open data might be flattened into conclusions that fall shy of something true to life.

Manhattan Tree Topography by TWO-N delivers a similar message. In its construction of the island of Manhattan made entirely of wooden blocks, each featuring the material of the neighborhood’s most populous tree, one block is notably absent. Central Park, usually a relief of greenery from the urban jungle, is represented only by white space. The piece is starkly elegant, and achieves more uniformity than is perhaps desirable (the honey locust being commonly the most prevalent tree across the borough). Its physicality, for better or worse, is less demanding than Oh’s Slow Down or So Yeon Jeong and Ye Eun Jeong’s The Time and Place of Sexual Trauma. Though the heaviness of the blocks and the particular grains of the few types of wood try to engage the viewer on a sensory level, the piece is perhaps most effective in prompting the viewer to consider its underlying data critically: what isn’t counted matters.

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Sam Hyatt

For those interested in experiencing the exhibit firsthand, Data Through Design is open this week, Monday through Friday between 9am and 7pm and on Saturday between 10am and 6pm at the NY Media Center in DUMBO, Brooklyn.

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All works featured in this exhibit are based off of datasets in New York’s open data portal. Interested in exploring data visually? There are thousands of datasets on a broad range of subjects available on Enigma Public.