Big Data
4:52 pm
Thu March 27, 2014

What Pictures Do St. Louis Data Paint? We're About To Find Out

In 2009, Jer Thorp noticed that quite a few people were tweeting the words “Good Morning.”

Jer Thorp
Jer Thorp
Credit Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio Intern | File photo

As any good data artist would do, he decided to amass location and time information from more than 11,000 “good morning” tweets that occurred within a specific 24 hour period. He transformed those statistics into a coherent, visual model of individual human sleeping patterns around the world. Framing complex statistics in a form accessible to humans is the goal of Thorp’s work — which ranges from screen prints to 120-foot wide video projections — and is what initially caught the attention of Kelly Pollock, executive director of the Center of Creative Arts (COCA).

“We first read about him in National Geographic,” said Pollock at a press conference at City Hall. “It outlined some of his work as a data artist and we were instantly intrigued about applying some of his thinking and expertise to the work we do here in St. Louis.”

Over the next 15 months, Jer Thorp will be an artist-in-residence at COCA, thanks to the $75,000 Innovation Fund awarded in November by the Regional Arts Commission. COCA, a multidisciplinary arts learning center, was looking for a way to present the organization’s statistics that communicated the influence they were having on individuals in the surrounding community.

“We have all these stories about human transformation but the numbers we have don’t really communicate that,” said Pollock. “We’re hoping to develop a new way to communicate the impact of the arts.”

This is Thorp’s first visit to St. Louis, and during the course of the 15 month partnership, he will return to St. Louis several times based on the needs of the projects he decides to pursue. At this point, the specifics of those projects are being formulated. “If I had an idea that I had already come up with, and I was just going to come into St. Louis and wedge that in, I don’t think it would work,” said Thorp at the press conference.

He did mention that whatever the project is, he hopes it will involve participation from St. Louis residents. “For me this is an experiment to see if we can push this idea of ‘Can data be human?’ as far as we can,” said Thorp, “and make it something that is part of a community.” COCA’s history of engagement with the St. Louis community initially attracted Thorp to the partnership, but it was the organization’s proximity to the Delmar Divide that convinced him to commit to the residency. “I’m very interested in this growing problem of income disparity and class disparity.”

Raised in Vancouver, Thorp studied genetics in college before dropping out six months before graduation. He eventually was employed as a programmer, albeit through some questionable means.

I lied to them and told them I knew how to program,” said Thorp. What followed was a year of what Thorp described as “sheer panic,” when he rapidly taught himself everything he had told his employers he already knew how to do.

But the stressful year proved to be valuable in 2010, when he was invited to be the Data Artist-in-Residence at the New York Times Research and Development group. He is a co-founder of The Office for Creative Research, a think tank that explores new methods of working with data, and teaches in New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. His work can be seen in The Guardian, Scientific American, The New Yorker, Popular Science as well as the Museum of Modern Art.

As a data artist, Thorp employs elements from the disciplines of art, science and design to turn complex information into meaningful visuals. When Thorp worked at the New York Times, he completed a variety of projects including a timepiece graph that tracked the frequency of the words “crisis” and “hope” used in the New York Times from 1981-2010. (There were only three instances when the word “crisis” surpassed “hope,” one of which occurred in the final slice of the graph.)

During the construction of the 9/11 Memorial in New York, the memorial’s architects wanted a way to display the names of the victims that was more meaningful than an arbitrary grid or alphabetical arrangement. Thorp developed a way to arrange each victim’s name next to the friends, co-workers, family members and public servants they were connected to during their lives. His other projects can be viewed on his online portfolio.

So, how will Thorp begin to create human-focused alternatives to St. Louis’s reservoir of big data? With people.

As Thorp said at the end of his press conference, “If there are people who are in St. Louis who are excited about this project or maybe have some ideas about how we can engage with data in these types of ways. I would love to hear from you.”

Stephanie Zimmerman is an intern with St. Louis Public Radio.

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