Last week I had the opportunity to attend an exhibition that had been on the top of my to-do list for some time. The Big Bang Data display, which has been running at Somerset House for the past few months, is an event that has captured my imagination and was something I really wanted to experience. Big data has been a term that has worked its way through the media for some time now, but it seems that no one can really put into words what it actually is in its many forms, so being able to see its capacity in a visual form was too good to miss.
The exhibition brought to life a subject that is very difficult to describe in itself. Artists, designers and technology companies from around the world had come together to try and make data more accessible to the general public, and the results were extraordinary. For example, upon walking into the exhibition, you are immersed in a screen showing the inside of a data centre, a place that most people will never see the inside of unless they work in the industry.
Moving into the main hub of the exhibit, what really struck me was the incredible capability that data has in areas that wouldn’t even cross your mind until you see it in the flesh. Firstly, it’s easy to forget the man-made technologies that have been created in order to make transferring information a global phenomenon, this was demonstrated by a map of the worlds cables that connect all our information, from London to New York, we have created data streams that span continents, and this is what you could define as outdated technology!
Next, you were taken through the history of data and how it has been used, and what was noticeable is that the progression has been huge. For example, in the exhibition stated that 2002 was the first time we had more information stored digitally rather than in analogue, fast forward 14 years and we now store around 2.5 trillion bytes of data a day globally, over a short space of time we have gone from digital becoming the norm to it becoming a way of life.
A personal highlight for me came next, the Internet of Things room. This area was designed to demonstrate the capabilities of IoT (Internet of Things) and what we can do with it, and the data that is available to create a visual representation of this is a site to behold. For example, through people posting images on Instagram, a data map was created of London that was updated live showing each image that had been uploaded in the city, this was fascinating and also raised an interesting point of how our data is so easily accessible. In a recent Wellcome report into public attitudes to commercial access to health data, it was found that most believed they owned their personal data, and what this display highlighted is that what you may think is personal and is just being shared amongst friends is very much public property.
In this same exhibit, the Future Cities Catapult, one of nine Catapults established by Innovate UK, the UK Government’s innovation agency bringing together businesses, universities and city leaders to work with each other to solve the problems that cities face, had created a simulation in which you created your ideal city. You were tasked to be control of London in 2036, and through data modelling techniques you created your ideal version of the city. This highlighted the key role that data is going to play in shaping our future communities, and to be in control of this was enlightening.
I could go on forever about the things you can see at the exhibition, from government organisations and institutions such as The Long Now Foundation, to artists like Julian Oliver, data was brought alive through a range of diverse and creative techniques. The key here was that a subject that is often not understood by the general population was illustrated in a way that made it accessible to all, and as big data continues to play a bigger role in our lives, this will be vital to both raising public awareness and training the next generation of data scientists.