At this year’s CeBIT computer trade fair in Hannover, Germany, the world’s most impressive and eccentric new technology has been on display. But between the pole-dancing droids and the robot moon monkeys, the massive data visualizations on display at the fair’s CODE_n exhibition in Hall 16 have turned heads with their artistry, execution and scale. CODE_n bills itself as an international initiative for digital pioneers, innovators and groundbreaking startups. This year, it is focusing on big data. The elegantly complex visualizations that fill the exhibition hall’s more than 3,000 meters of wall space were designed to physically depict data on this immense scale. The images, created as terapixel graphics, are the product of data sets from a range of sources, including Google Lab’s annals of digitized books and diffusion MRIs of the human brain. “We were looking for examples of Big Data applications that go beyond the intelligence and advertising communities and into fields where data pushes knowledge production,” Clemens Weisshaar of KRAM/WEISSHAAR, the firm tasked with designing the exhibition, wrote in an email. “Massive amounts of unstructured data from the disciplines of Neuroscience, Oceanography and the Humanities were analysed and scrutinized to unveil their potential.” The immediate impact of the visualizations comes from their sheer size. At 12 meters high and 260 meters wide, the vast scale of the graphics created its own set of logistical hurdles. “The unique complication here is that, unlike with large scale images in outdoor applications, visitors can walk up very close to the graphic textiles,” wrote Weisshaar. “The terapixel resolution became a critical component in the impressiveness and readability of the architecture. We needed the crispness and detail of trillions of pixels, which itself is in the realm of Big Data.” To create the physical membrane of the graphic, the designers used a five-meter-wide HP inkjet printer in a laboriously time-consuming procedure. “It takes two hours to process the file for each 12m long strip and another hour to physically print it. The individual strips forming the membrane are connected with magnetic strips that are sewn into the edges of each strip,” Weisshaar explained. At the intersection of art, architecture and science, each image required serious coding to funnel the data into a usable structure and write out the terapixel files. However, while the clarity and detail of the images invite closer inspection, their massive scale renders them more believably to be pieces of art than conveyors of insight. But as a backdrop to a conversation about the state and future of big data, Weisshaar says the role of the graphics is more nuanced. “The work occupies the space between exhibition architecture and design. It has real world implications, but transcends pure functionality; we weren’t looking to do infographics wherein quantitative data is made more legible. Rather, we began with the intention to demonstrate the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of Big Data,” he wrote. “We see the graphics more as an extension of the architecture – an experiential, integral component of the hall’s spatial concept and not as “art” pieces in their own right.” Allison McCartney is an editor at the PBS NewsHour focused on education and informational graphics, and a freelance designer in the Visual.ly marketplace. She has a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, where she studied Middle Eastern history and art. You can follow her on Twitter @anmccartney.
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