Big Bang Data: Four things you need to know about the age of information


Tuesday 26 January 2016 by Georgina Vane

I recently went along to the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House in London. Billed as an event in which “artists and designers help us understand our brave new world”, I left feeling overwhelmed. Exhibitions are meant to push you and make you look at things in different ways, and while at The Frameworks we’re more than aware of how crucial data is to brands, Big Bang Data opened my mind to broader issues created by this age of information. Here are four things I learned.

1. It’s easy to forget that data has a physical mass

Did you know that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every day? And were you aware that 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years? Just 16 years ago at the turn of the millennium, three quarters of the world’s data was still stored in analogue form. Seven years later, 94% was digital.

Many of us can’t help but think of data and the cloud as abstract concepts. But we forget there are physical components that have a mass. This was brought to life by José Luis de Vicente’s display, “Del secret al monument”. Each server, data centre, warehouse and other physical component that helps facilitate cloud computing and data storage around the world was represented by a postcard. It gave me a tangible idea of the sheer real-world mass that the cloud commands.

Another impactful collection was Brendan Dawes’s “Cinema Redux”, which distills every second of a movie into one image. Each minute of a chosen film is represented by sixty frames in a row, each frame representing one second. It creates a patchwork of data and reminds me that digital information can take any form – even entertainment.

Brendan Dawes’s “Cinema Redux”

2. The way we analyse data is constantly evolving

This explosion of data between 2000 and 2007 and beyond has necessitated a complete rethink of the way we record and analyse the information generated every second. Advanced analytics services now enable businesses and consumers to take in and interrogate virtually any information.

Nicolas Felton’s decade-long project to record almost every aspect of his life through a series of annual reports illustrates just how much the volume of data we have access to has grown – and how the way we must interpret this information has advanced. Felton’s initial report, published in 2005, chronicles activities like the top websites he visited, the music he listened to and the restaurants he visited the most. It was relatively basic and copy-based.

Fast forward a decade and the annual reports are almost unrecognisable. They focus on different elements of Fulton’s life and are driven by numbers. They provide a far more detailed insight into Felton’s year, including elements like the quality and duration of his sleep, his heart rate and time spent travelling. In his final report, Felton had to divide the report into quarterly sections, such was the volume of data he generated. The design and layout of these reports are also striking in that they show the different ways we can visualise and digest these sometimes daunting volumes of information.

Nicolas Felton’s 2014 report

3. There’s a sinister side to all this

For all the good that data can do – for businesses, science and consumers – there is a darker side. Almost everything we do can be tracked online. And that’s a scary prospect.

Florida State University professor Owen Mundy brought this to life in an unexpected way. From the comedic to the cute, cats are everywhere online. Barely a week goes past where a picture or video of a moggy doesn’t “win the internet” – we can’t get enough of them. But Mundy’s programme, “I know where your cat lives” illustrates that perhaps we should be more careful with what we share online.

The web app uses the public data provided by image services like Flickr, Twitpic and Instagram to place images of cats at their homes on an interactive map. Cute, huh? But chillingly, “I know where your cat lives” translates to “I know where you live”.

Whether or not this should be a concern for us as consumers is up for debate. Many of us are accustomed to trading our data for more personalised experiences – and that almost always involves an email or a physical address. How easy is it for that information to fall into the wrong hands? The anxiety that all this cat-tracking brought out in me was compounded when I encountered a section of the exhibition dedicated to the National Security Agency (NSA) and Edward Snowdon, taking me straight back to the horror I felt when the scandal first broke.

4. Data is driving amazing projects

Of course, there’s a positive side to the way we interact with and use data – and it goes beyond providing personalised customer service or helping businesses make better decisions. Apple launched ResearchKit last year in an attempt to further medical research by enabling medical professionals to create and launch apps that collect data from smartphone users. An early example, mPower, collects and interprets data from Parkinson’s sufferers in a bid to better track the disease’s symptoms and help those affected.

IBM Watson Health Cloud is another data-based breakthrough. The platform is harnessing medical data from a host of sources, including individuals, clinical trials and medical research to create a knowledge-sharing hub that uses Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities to help further medical research. The groundbreaking products that this platform can create are already coming to fruition. Solutions like Watson for Clinical Trial Matching and Watson for Oncology are already using data to provide new treatment options and approaches.

Both Apple and IBM stress the importance of ensuring that participants’ data remains anonymous and that contributors remain in full control of their own information. This type of transparency serves as an antidote to horror stories about private data – and the work these companies are doing perfectly illustrates the power of data for good.

I left Somerset House feeling slightly concerned. But having analysed all the information that the exhibition provided, I realise that if data is used in the right way, then there are really exciting times ahead.

Jonathan Harris – Data will help us

Georgina has left The Frameworks.

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