Information Invasion: Somerset House’s Big Bang Data Exhibition

By Florianne Humphrey

Every day we create 2.5 trillion bytes of data, from uploading an embarrassing Klute photo on Facebook to buying a dress online for a formal. 2002 marked the turning point when there was more digital than analogue information, and 90% of the data in the world today were created in the last two years. London’s Somerset House proves that these unbelievable statistics are entirely accurate through their new exhibition “Big Bang Data”, a collection of art installations and factual information that reveals how data are an integral part of our lives.

To the layperson an exhibit on data sounds overwhelmingly complex, however, the visual and interactive displays help to dilute the statistical and technical information. A collection of glowing globes shows different worldwide data patterns such as freedom of press, number of phones per capita, refugee currents and prison populations, whilst a giant map on the floor is criss-crossed with multi-coloured fibre optic cables connecting countries.  If you need a break you can lie down on beanie bags and look up at a projection of the night sky where the stars represent real-time financial markets.

The exhibition also displays projects based around research into data use. Of course the selfie makes an appearance, with Somerset House’s own Selfiecity project revealing a fact that all Londoners must face up to: maybe it’s the tourists, maybe it’s the Tube, but, of all cities, London selfies have the least happy faces. Data crop up in more unusual and surprising forms as a modern day Sherlock Holmes used the DNA from cigarette butts and chewing gum to create a 3D image of the owner’s face. Finally, the project #oneSecond transferred digital data into a physical format, preserving tweets that were posted at exactly 14:37:36 GMT on the 9th November 2012 in four different books.

With a highly data-centric society also come the dangers of privacy invasion. There is a light-hearted example of an experiment called “I Know Where Your Cat Lives” which maps one million public pictures of cats on a world map to show how companies use and interpret personal data.  On a more sinister note, there is also a slideshow of 10,000 photographs hacked from computers with background music taken from the same hard drive.

“Big Bang Data”, however, is far from pessimistic. With knowledge comes power, and if data are taken from the claws of corporations and given back to citizens it can raise awareness and create transparency on issues previously hidden from the public eye.  For example, “Where Does My Money Go?” provides information on how tax money is spent whilst “TheyWorkForYou” allows you to search everything that was said in Parliament from the 1930s onwards.

There is a reminder that data also have their limits and that we should not rely on them to dictate our lives.  Quantitative information can neither predict illogical, exclusively human decisions, such as who you fall in love with, nor should it substitute intuition, wisdom, morality or personal experience. Big Bang Data is an incredible and thorough exploration of all forms of data, how they positively and negatively impact our lives and how we can use them to our advantage. So next time you take a selfie, remember that it is not just a small ripple: you have just made an important contribution to the tsunami of the Big Data Era.

The exhibition is £9.50 for students and has been extended to the 20 March 2016

Photograph: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency via Wikimedia Commons

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