Selfies, surveillance and infographics: Big Bang Data at Somerset House

A new exhibition at London’s Somerset House explores our complex relationship with data and how it is changing the world we live in

If you have a smartphone, almost everything you do today will generate some kind of data. Go for a run and it will track your location, shop for Christmas gifts and your browser will store cookies, post a selfie and it will be broadcast to the world.

Ninety percent of the data that exists in the world today was created in the past two years alone and in 2012, we generated around 2.5 quintillion bytes a day. This mass explosion of data – and our increasing reliance on it – is the subject of a new exhibition at Somerset House.

The show begins with two audio visual installations: the first, by Timo Arnall, offers a glimpse of the physical reality of the internet with footage from the largest data center in Europe. Split over three screens, it shows clinical rooms and corridors eerily devoid of human life and filled with whirring fibre optic cables, servers and generators. The second, by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda, aims to convey the vastness of the web through binary code and pixels: millions of dots fill the screen like stars, offering a dizzying look at a seemingly infinite and ever expanding universe.

Datatron
Datatron, WUXGA version audiovisual installation by Ryoji Ikeda. Image: Leon Dario Pelaez
InternetMachine
Timo Arnall, Internet Machine, 2014

Upstairs, large-scale infographics, short films and personal art projects  show the changing ways in which data is stored, used and generated. The majority of data which exists nowadays is made not by governments or scientific organisations but by ordinary citizens but a series of mixed media installations encourage visitors to think twice about the information they post online.

Nicholas Felton’s annual reports are a series of printed booklets which he made about his life every year between 2006 and 2013. Graphs, tables and charts show everything from the number of records bought to animals eaten, books read and places travelled. It’s the kind of information that most people share without a second thought, but when compiled in physical form, presents a surprisingly discernible narrative from hobbies and habits to musical tastes and conversations. 

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Ingo Günther’s World Processer, an ongoing project he began in 1989. Günther has created over 1000 globes which are used to visualise information at the time they were made: one maps refugee migration around the world, another shows global prison populations (the brightness of white lines on a black map indicates density) and another presents a map of the worlds largest economies – 51 of which are actually corporations.

Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico’s controversial Face to Facebook project shows our lack of control over the data we upload (the pair lifted profile information from a million Facebook accounts and uploaded it to a spoof dating website, lovely-faces.com, resulting in global media coverage and outrage among those whose faces were used). Data experiment I Know Where Your Cat Lives offers a fun take on a similar theme, plotting the location of a million cats on the world based on public social media posts.

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Future Cities Catapult’s interactive tool puts visitors in charge of London – and shows the effect their decisions will have in 20 years
Interviews with Edward Snowden and William Binney for The Guardian and the New York Times serve as a chilling reminder of global governments’ power to use personal data without our consent, and the extreme lengths the NSA has gone to to conceal its surveillance programmes. This section of the exhibition feels a little light – particularly given the complexity of the subject, and its relevance in the wake of terror attacks in Europe and the Middle East and proposed changes to surveillance powers in the UK – but the show has a lot to cram in, and aims to balance the darker side of data with more light-hearted projects.

A more positive portrayal of data looks at data journalism and crowdsourced information. There’s a fantastic project from the Guardian, which demonstrates how its journalists used data from 19.6 million house sales in the UK over the past 20 years to create an easy-to-use interactive highlighting the affordability of areas based on users’ salary (you can try it out here). Placed alongside early examples of data visualisation from John Snow and Florence Nightingale, which were used to track death and disease, and recent work from David McCandless, this section demonstrates how big data can help us build a clearer picture of the world around us.

Stranger visions
Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s Stranger Visions. Dewy-Hagborg sculpted a series of 3D faces based on DNA samples gathered from chewing gum and cigarette buts found in public places

Community projects such as Open Street Map and Safecast‘s work to record radiation levels in Japan (the project gave out low cost Geiger counters to residents following the Fukushima disaster, enabling them to record and upload radiation data in their local area, which led to the biggest independent source of information on radiation levels in Japan) also show  community-led produce can produce valuable – and reliable – data sets.

Big data’s impact on politics is explored too, with a look at some interesting digital voting tools. Decide Madrid is a fascinating example of democracy in a digital age: devised by Nesta for Madrid City Council, the site acts as an open consultation platform where people can have their say on issues from bull fighting to transport proposals, something we’ll likely see a lot more of over the next few years.

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Tekja’s installation in the London Situation Room shows a live feed of Tweets, Instagram posts and TfL data from London

One of the most compelling parts of the exhibition places visitors in a control room-style studio where they can track goings on in London and make decisions about its future. It’s an immersive experience and feels a little like playing a large-scale version of Sim City: an interactive piece by Tekja projects three live data streams on a map of the capital, showing Tweets, Instagram posts and TfL updates, while another by Future Cities Catapult asks users to make decisions about housing, energy, transport and building projects, and uses data modelling to predict the effects those decisions would have over the next 20 years. 

SelfieCity
selfiecity, commissioned for Big Bang Data, compares thousands of selfies taken in London to those uploaded in other major cities around the world, identifying popular trends and poses. Analysis revealed London selfie takers prefer more upright and restrained poses, wear the most glasses and often have their eyes closed

The show doesn’t draw many conclusions but it is an entertaining introduction to some of the big issues surrounding big data today. It also highlights the many ways in which artists, designers and journalists are using data in inventive and beautiful ways – from infographics to community research projects and Joshua Portway and Lise Autogena’s Black Shoals, which presents a live feed of stock market trading in the form of a domed planetarium. It ends, however, with a warning that while data is useful, it is not always a reliable source – as demonstrated in James Bridle’s colourful Fraunhofer Lines, which highlights the proportion of redactions in government documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests.

Morag Myerscough has created some excellent graphics – from a dazzling illuminated display for the show’s entrance and bold neon type throughout – and you can easily spend a couple of hours inside, whether controlling the future of London, gazing at selfies or watching one of the many documentary films on show.

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Specially commissioned for Big Bang Data, this installation by Tekja displays tweets and status updates posted within a one mile radius of Somerset House

Big Bang Data is open at Somerset House, The Strand, London WC2R 1LA until February 28 2016. For details or to book tickets see somersethouse.org.uk

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