Data is Everything

I never thought of photos as “data”. Obviously they are, but they’re so visceral they usually hit a different part of my brain. I usually think of data as a thing that resolves to text and numbers. I think it’s from my days as a programmer; I mostly dealt with text, I’ve never coded against image or video codecs. But recently I’ve had a few experiences that remind me how powerful it is to realize data is in everything. We’re so flooded with data we’re interpreting and with the data we’re creating, the fish doesn’t know the water it swims in.

I’ve had two experiences over the past few years that have floored me into remembering new ways to see data. (Actually, easily more than two, but these are iconic for me.) In the spirit of writing to inspire others, I thought I’d share the experiences that have inspire me to see data in new places.

First Moment: Nick Felton’s 2011 talk at Eyeo Festival. In the talk, he goes over how he created his 2010 annual report to document his father’s life. Felton is someone who seems to see data in every interaction, so it’s inspiring to understand how he processes the world. About 33 minutes into the video, he talks about working with some of his father’s old photographs to determine the places he’s traveled. He has a few great moments of using data within the photographs to reconcile images to places, (a few of those come from the help of strangers, which inspire even further.)

Second Moment: Today, my colleague Todd send a link about a project that uses the Street View data from Google Maps to reconstruct visual travel sequences (more examples here.) Every photo from Google Maps becomes a moment in a video, stitching together an experience of traveling in a place you’ve possibly never visited. It reminded me of Jenny Odell’s Travel By Approximation, a project where she ‘travelled’ around the country via Google Maps – such a clever idea, it’s always stuck with me. It also reminded me of Wilderness Downtown, Arcade Fire’s multimedia experience from a year or so ago that uses google maps and your home address. 

Both of these experiences used data created for one purpose to create meaning in a new way. (As an aside, it’s interesting that the reinterpretations are more powerful than their first incarnation.) These moments also underscore the power of neutral data to create new views into the world (photos are usually neutral, they just represent the world…interpreted/text-based data isn’t always so neutral.) 

For me, both of these examples are great reminders that everything we do, everything we make creates data. Still, there’s something futuristic about machines defining insight from visual data (though it’s an old trick.) It’s a very old idea, but it still feels like we’re at the tip of an iceberg.

Edit: If you enjoyed this, you’ll probably love this article from @Faris’s too.

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