April 6, 2012, 6:36 p.m. ET
Making Data Beautiful
The most inspiring new art is visualized information
Aaron Koblin's New York Talk Exchange shows, in real time, the volume of telephone and Internet data flowing to other cities.
Dateline: Dullsville. This week the Tate Modern museum in London unveiled a Damien Hirst retrospective that's about as fresh as one of its featured pieces: "A Thousand Years" is an actual rotting cow's head. Why are we picking at these carcasses of creativity? We should instead be celebrating the really new and relevant: the rise of the data visualizers. Their medium is the one with momentum, the one genuinely changing how we think and feel. And it's about to boom.
At companies and universities, and far beyond, the goal of data-driven digital artists is clear, not cynical: convey complex concepts quickly and crisply. They want to generate not Art-with-a-capital-A, necessarily, but understanding. They take stone-cold data—units of information—and turn them into something warmly communicative. Beautiful, too. So they become a pleasure for us to absorb.
Humans process information 17 times faster using sight than other senses, according to one Danish physicist. Take Gareth Lloyd's Web-based "A History of the World in 100 Seconds": over 14,000 geo-tagged Wikipedia articles, digitally mapped from 499 B.C. to the present. You can watch the data points pop like fireworks as they gradually form a glowing map of the continents. Hans Rosling's Gapminder website tracks data on the wealth and health of nations from 1800 on. You watch as bubbles representing each country expand, contract and bounce along over time—almost hopefully.
Data visualization has a history, of course. William Playfair invented four key visualization types in 1786, influencing Florence Nightingale, among others. She used a graphic polar chart in 1859 to show that soldiers were dying from infections, not wounds. But big data is today's specific bane. We all battle data obesity—too much information, not enough of it nutritious—and crave experts to help us sort and savor it. Happily, technology has handed us, and them, the tools. Faster computers, new programming languages.
"It's not unlike a microscope—taking something you can't see and bringing it into the scale of perception," Aaron Koblin, 30, told me at lunch in Google's San Francisco office. He's head of the company's Data Arts Team.
Mr. Koblin has temporally mapped text messages in New York. 'You really understand a lot about cities from flows,' he says.
Mr. Koblin's work sits right on the line between art and information. The shimmery tiles in eCloud, his installation at San Jose International Airport, change from opaque to transparent depending on the global weather data they're receiving. His New York Talk Exchange project visualizes the volume of long-distance telephone and Internet data between New York and other cities, revealing New Yorkers' relationships with the world.
He has temporally mapped text messages, too, in Amsterdam and New York. "You really understand a lot about cities from flows, when people are awake and doing what things at what locations," says Mr. Koblin. "And you can say, people in Brooklyn tend to get up later than people in Manhattan."
Add to that sonification: sound reiterating what you see, helping to "storify" information, especially for those who are pitch-sensitive. "You can turn data into rhythms," says Mr. Koblin, such as cable-box data. "CNBC has a constant rhythm, really local. But CNN is really event-driven—and you get these crazy spikes."
Tomorrow's prime exhibition space is online, not in a gallery. Still, some of Mr. Koblin's visualizations are part of the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. He was nominated for a Grammy for his Radiohead video. And he co-created the first made-for-Web music video for Arcade Fire's "The Wilderness Downtown." Plug in the address where you grew up and the video, using Google Street View, transports you back there. You can almost taste the chocolate milk.
Delivering information and entertainment in such delightfully shocking ways is what the coming age of data arts is all about: a flat screen reaching out to smack, or sway, you. Talk about fresh. There are no putrefying cow heads here.
A version of this article appeared April 7, 2012, on page C12 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Making Data BeautifulMaking Data Beautiful.