Untitled, from a student project to map school choice in Chicago
Untitled, from a student project to map school choice in Chicago Credit: Courtesy SAICProject

Practices like data mining and data scraping are uncovering more of the world’s raw information than ever before: seriously big data. Are we going to do something constructive with it, or just drown?

This summer, a group of nine science students at Northwestern and 11 art and design students at the School of the Art Institute collaborated to find new ways of turning all the numbers into pictures and objects, with the goal of making them comprehensible to the average viewer.

“It’s imperative that we create more useful and compelling ways of communicating the data,” says Michael Golec, an SAIC professor who worked with the students. “Most forms of data representation date from the late 19th or early 20th century. Only now are we inventing new ways of depicting data. It’s an interesting moment. We’re taking USA Today and making it life-sized.”

The students’ work, the product of three separate projects, goes on display this weekend in a show called “Data Viz Collaborative,” which comprises room-size installations with both two- and three-dimensional components. “The medium is the data,” Golec says. “It’s how you engage with the numbers and how the numbers are algorithmically altered to produce different objects and images.”

Two of the installations are based on existing data sets collected by Northwestern professors. Luis Amaral’s numbers track where Chicago’s high school students chose to enroll; the Data Viz students compiled numbers from other factors—household income, availability of public transportation—that may have influenced their decisions. Danny Abrams contributed genealogical information for ten Korean families over the past 500 years; the students figured out ways to represent that information visually.

The third project doesn’t use an existing data set. Instead, students will use special equipment to track the eye movements of visitors to the exhibition—in particular, what they look at when they see a human face.

Despite the differences in their academic backgrounds, Golec says, “the students confounded the characteristics of artists and scientists and blended as students.” Some of their results are beautiful. But if you just look at it that way, Golec says, you’d just be missing the point. “I think calling it artwork doesn’t do it justice. It’s the aesthetics of information. It’s not just something that looks good. It has an affective quality. It changes the way you look at the world.”