Big data is a big thing in the IT and enterprise world, but understanding the massive volumes of information, the infrastructure that supports it, the scope of its use, and the sheer number of sources that feed into it, is no mean feat.
The Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House in central London is attempting to break the subject down into something much easier to digest.
The exhibition looks at everything from visualising volumes of data and explaining how the cloud and internet works as a vehicle and generator of big data, to the positive - and potentially sinister - ramifications of this big data era.
V3 had a tour of the exhibition and has selected several highlights that show the impact of big data on the world in a tangible way often lost in the jargon of IT.
The exhibition uses striking visual installations to show how data is almost infinite in volume and, much like the universe after the Big Bang, has grown outward and more entropic, complex and dispersed.
The video above is one such example of this; an artist’s impression of the volume, growth and disperse, dispersed nature of big data. It is brutally and dizzyingly effective at conveying how a universe of data exists on Earth. But there is the challenge of explaining where all that data is stored, maintained and transported - in layman’s terms.
The internet and cloud computing go hand in hand with the growth of big data, and the exhibition strips away some of the mystery that surrounds the cloud and explains the perennial question of 'where is the internet exactly?'
In one section a large map of the world is displayed across the floor showing all the transnational cabling that serves as the backbone infrastructure for the internet, effectively showing that the information super highway consists of thousands of miles of cables that pipe data between countries and continents.
Suspended above the map are photos of data centres (above) belonging to some of the world’s largest providers of cloud platforms, acting as a visual metaphor to show that the cloud is not simply a mass of zeros and ones floating invisibly in the air, but a web of cables, servers, computers and buildings that show the physicality of an often amorphous concept.
Building on the idea of visualising the concept of data and mixing it with nostalgia for some visitors, the exhibition has a section dedicated to how computer data storage has evolved over time.
Starting from punch cards and floppy disks and moving to tape (above), CDs and USB sticks, it shows that the evolution of storage technology has seen the hardware shrink.
Moving on from the practicalities of big data, the exhibition showcases numerous sources of data. As many readers will know, businesses are full of data, gleaned from systems of record, sales figures, sensor networks and other sources.
But the exhibition shows that data can come from anywhere. A solid visual example can be seen in a section showing how the Cinema Redux process (pictured above) takes visual data from a film and distils it into a single image, effectively collating a mass of data and presenting it in a meaningful way.
It works by processing 8x6 pixel images from every second of a film, in this case Jaws, Kill Bill, Vertigo and Blow-Up, and collating them into rows of shots which are in turn used to create a single image. It's essentially a form of DNA for a film which can show the editing and pace behind it.
Building on this is the World Processor created by artist Ingo Gunther. This is a growing series of model globes showing different big data models, exploring numerous social, political, economic, technological and environmental issues, such as the flow of international trade and the interplay of global fertility and mortality.
The World Processor serves as an example of just how much can be gleaned from big data. Using data for this level of insight could completely transform a company's business model, strategy and even ethics.
Another standout feature is the Zero Noon digital clock created by Rafael Lozano Hemmer which pulls statistics from the internet and displays a new statistic every minute. These range from the daily number of biscuits sold by girl scouts to how many pistols have been manufactured in the US since noon (below).
The clock represents the diverse range of data freely available on the internet that can generate insightful information when harvested and properly packaged.
Arguably the most striking visual representation of data is the Black Shoals; Dark Matter software installation which displays live stock exchange trading data as stars that flicker and glow when shares are traded around the world.
Bright and long flickers represent the larger transactions and at times many stars light up at once, representing an explosion in financial big data.
Alongside the stars are artificial creatures that feed off the light generated from the trading activity, growing as more money is traded. Interestingly, the virtual creatures have no limit to their development, so there is no precedent governing how they will grow or evolve.
It could be speculated that the creatures represent businesses dependent on data consumption for their evolution.
The good, the bad and the ugly
There is a focus throughout the exhibition on how data can be used for good and ill, as well as highlighting how it can be presented to uncover grim truths in information.
As many would expect, privacy played a large part of the exhibition. Videos discussed the NSA’s snooping, and an interactive installation showed a person’s home location via pictures of their cats posted on social networks.
One installation demonstrated how two people created a fake dating website from the Facebook profile pictures of others (above) with the aim of exposing how easily online privacy can be exploited.
Others demonstrated how much data people share about themselves, such as feelings posted on Twitter and personal pictures shared on Instagram, all of which is instantly in the public domain.
One of the more intriguing and frankly creepy parts of the exhibition is a feature set in an alcove of Somerset House that projects images accompanied by music pilfered by hackers from personal computers.
It served to demonstrate how invasive cyber attacks can be, and how much data individuals have that can paint a picture of them very quickly.
As a counterpoint to this, there is a section that allows visitors to create their own ‘data licence’ to help them decide what they want to share and what they want to keep private.
Several hardware installations demonstrated how data can be packaged to help people in very specific ways, such the Prayer Companion that offers news and suggested prayers to cloistered nuns.
Probably one of the most effective examples of big data use is an abstract image based on US activity in the Iraq war made public by WikiLeaks.
The image shows how many civilian and military deaths occurred between 2004 and 2009. As seen in the image below, the top dark line represents friendly troops, the second greyish box shows home nation troops, while the huge orange block of colours shows Iraqi civilians. The last dark grey blocks represents enemy fighters.
The image on the right shows the data as it was reported chronologically, while the left shows the deaths in terms of characteristics. Both images show the same data, but the left makes it brutally simple to see the number of civilian casualties during the five-year war.
It's shocking and insightful, and shows how presenting data in the right way to get to the heart of a topic is just as important as collecting it in the first place.
This serves as a good reminder for companies looking into visual analytics and big data tools, such Microsoft’s Power BI, to find the most useful and powerful data rather than accept the results at face value.
London’s data deluge
The exhibition has a whole wing dedicated to the data harvested in London. The London Situation Room (above) shows how a mix of data pulled from Twitter and Instagram and Transport for London can create a rich tapestry of data on citizens' experiences across the urban sprawl.
One of the most interesting aspects is a map showing people’s feelings in relation to their location in the city. As the image below shows, numerous emotions, outbursts and whimsy get posted in the public domain, giving an insight into the mood of the city.
It highlights yet again how much data people share and how much information is out there in the public domain for businesses to harvest and better target products and services at customers without invading their privacy.
The Big Bang Data exhibition runs until 20 March and is worth a visit for people who are new to or familiar with big data, as there is surely to be something that has not occurred to even those well versed in data harvesting infrastructure and cutting-edge analytics systems.
And with several messages to take away from the exhibition, it should leave visitors in awe and perhaps a bit fearful about how big data can be collected and used to change or even destroy society.
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