"Today, with big data and its implications so important to citizenship and society, artists are at the forefront of helping us see and understand data in altogether new ways. And the questions they ask help us process our collective anxiety and fascination with the phenomena of a pervasively instrumented world."
As part of the Aspen Ideas Festival's design track, Peter Hirshberg explores the implications of Big Data--and how artists are vital in helping us understand and interpret this phenomena. The Art of Data exhibit is on view in The Resnick Gallery, lower floor of the Doerr-Hosier Center through September 2nd. It can be seen online at www.theartofdata.org.
Ours is the era of pervasive data: we are surrounded by signals and sensors that chronicle everything about our world and our lives. Web and mobile phone usage patterns reveal much about our behavior. Soon practically every device will be a connected device: our cars, fitness monitors, streetlights, and buildings will all participate in the data production economy. This represents a shift in the human condition, a shift in what it means to be human when everything about us can be quantified, measured, analyzed, and nearly permanently stored. All this creates unprecedented economic opportunity, but also new anxieties about privacy, identity and the nature of hyper-quantified humanity. Enter the artist, who has always helped us see the world in new and different ways. New technologies have also reliably led to disruptive advances in art: think what perspective did for the renaissance or how the portable oil tube enabled the impressionists to move outdoors and paint in natural light. So consider what a moment this is for artists as they embrace a new medium: the world of data.
The artists in this show are pioneers in developing the visual language that makes data captivating, expressive and meaningful. They follow in the tradition of filmmakers, photographers and pop artists who embraced new technology throughout the 20th century, and explored the intersection of commercialism and art. These works take us beyond literal data visualization (a staple of science, business and journalism) to help us see the unexpected in data, gain a sense for its cultural meaning, and make the otherwise abstract into an emotional experience. They don’t provide ready answers, but rather ask questions about how data is represented, interpreted and used in society.
On 8 November 2011, the United Nations General Assembly was briefed on the progress of Global Pulse, an innovation initiative of the Secretary-General. The briefing began with an introduction by Andreas Weigend, former Chief Data Scientist for Amazon.com and Peter Hirshberg, former head of Enterprise Marketing for Apple, Inc., who offer a range of examples and visualizations of how Real-Time, or Big Data, can augment and improve decision making in the 21st century.
I encounter this 2 years ago when I co-founded the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, in San Francisco. It’s become a real nexus for digital types, creative storytellers and artists. San Francisco had just opened up hundreds of municipal data sets. We collaborated with Stayman Design to create a show around this. We mad an exhibit of crime data in San Francisco and unfortunately the greatest concentration of crime was right in our location. I thought the community would throw a fit!
Who were we to come in and put up this big display and show where crime is going on? I got completely defensive and really open did not seem like a very goo idea at the time; boy was I wrong. The police came to the exhibit and love it, they we’re saying things like, “Look. I made that arrest.” People started paying attention. Single parents in the community, which the our part of town, the Tenderloin, has the greatest concentration of, were saying “finally someone is paying attention to our problems.” This was electric, suddenly designers, geeks, and urbanists were coming together as much to build urban prototypes, solve problems and get messy with the city as they were creating art. I was completely astounded by the whole thing. The Tenderloin has many problems; one is that it’s really noisy. How would you get people to pay attention to that? Well on another prototyping weekend the folks from Stayman and Orup design firms got together with some artists and deployed sensors in the neighborhood, measured the noise, and shared the visualization with the city; asking no one for permission.
I was at City Hall one day talking to a city supervisor about applications and open data, and how it would change everything. The supervisor looked at me and said, “What are you talking about? Will all of that data get me reelected? Will my constituents like it? Will you help?” I suddenly felt like the IT guy talking to business user who had no idea what I was talking about. I was a victim of Enthusiastic Data Syndrome. I realized from my days in enterprise marketing that it was out job to get the city engaged with us and solve things together, or it wouldn’t work. We had an election coming up and I started wondering what if we actually got the candidates to be coconspirators, to be creators to actually be clients for projects? Could bottom-up innovation be sustainable in the city? We came up with this idea called “The Summer of Smart”, where we would take 16 candidates, run hackathons all summer and see; could we produce sustainable change?
We ran a summer-long set of activities and at the very end the best applications were presented to the candidates and they all sat around debating the best way to implement this stuff. We pitched it as basically the Silicon Valley Innovation Playbook; fast-fail ideation, but applied to the city. If you’re a liberal you loved it because finally it was progressive ideas moving quickly. And if you were conservative you loved it because it was less government and more self-determination. Candidates loved it because it was ideas worth stealing, literally. One of the candidates was complaining to me one day that another candidate had stolen all her good ideas and put them on his website and I thought if we could just come up with enough good ideas and they steal them all, we’re influencing the city.
We had 500 people show up throughout the city; 10,000 hours. It showed there was an enormous amount of cognitive surplus that wanted to work on this, and we see this over and over again. You also see that it's this kind of diverse talent matching a city bureaucrat, up with a non-profit, up with a coder that unleashes this kind of innovation. Here's an example, our head of public works showed up and said, "Where we see public art, we don't see graffiti. Where we see graffiti and blight, it's not very interesting, there's no public art. Could that lead to a solution?" If you were a geek, it was very clear this was a dating app between buildings and artists. They actually went ahead and built that app, and the idea was looking for a business model that actually got picked up by Zero One, an arts organization in San Jose, that launched it as Art Here. They basically said, "Let's take a whole bunch of space in San Jose and use it as a prototype digital campfire, or digital canvas." They have NEA funding and the artists, kind of like the WPA, but in the current world. They actually see this as a platform, or as they would say, an open source project for crowd source urban revitalization, and it’s moving back to San Francisco and onto Palo Alto.
There are instances where you get a candidate that shows up with an app that makes you cry. Dennis Herrera, the City Attorney of San Francisco, was running for mayor and he showed up with the Fire Department App. The basic idea being lets say someone is having a heart attack and by the time 911 arrives it may be too late; but their maybe someone nearby who has CPR training. He learned about this app form Sam Ramon, and they the only city I know of to make a commercial for an application. Remember if you’re a city, don’t make a video about something that’s a bad idea.
(Concluded in Rebooting Tomorrow Pt. 3)
The Bay Area of course is famous for creating movements. We named this for a previous “summer of…” and it’s that energy from the sixties that still casts a long shadow in San Francisco and I believe it’s different from what we see now. In the sixties we protested the establishment, today we cam simply write to its API. In fact, 81 cities and 34 countries worldwide have opened up to our data. Soon after we did “The Summer of Smart”, the government of Singapore rang up and said, "We are really good at that top-down cities thing, but we're curious about that bottoms-up innovation that's going on there. Could you run what you ran in San Francisco in Singapore?" We've now called it the UP festival, the Urban Prototyping festival. It'll be in Singapore this summer, right as they're opening they're data, culminating at the cities' festival, with 400 mayors. Then it's moving on to Zurich, which is also opening it's data this fall. Our goal is 7 continents in 3 years.
Everything I've talked about so far, all of these innovations are about how to make the city more responsive. I haven't talked a lot about the most visible part of our cities; its buildings and its architecture. Cities themselves are actually now becoming more responsive. The internet spills into the real world, and as any surface can become a display, that responsiveness can become part of how we experience our city. A good example is San Francisco's one of the most digital cities in the world. You wouldn't know it except you saw the big Zynga sign.
At MIT there is a building that is programmable and responsive as art. In Helsinki, that's the power plant, the more power that's used; the more the meter goes up. It's actually a way of using data to feedback, work with, and control the city. There are a number of ways of doing this. Here in San Francisco, a local organization Obscura Digital, has gotten really good at laser mapping buildings and creating wonderful responsive environments where the virtual architecture interacts with the real world. In New York recently, at Grand Central, this Financial Times, we could call it an ad but it's really not an ad, it's sharing global financial data with people. It's not just global financial data; it uses sensors to make that architecture responsive, so they're actually playing a simulation with the building and with that data in real-time, on a wall in New York. I think this is where it's going, and where those of us who care about these things need to bring it.
Yet if you go back to 1939, where I began there was San Francisco lit up and alive; an expression of 20th century urbanism. We think we can make this an expression of 21st century urbanism, but this time, responsive with many more people involved and a native form to San Francisco. New York of course, is famous for Time Square, with is ruthlessly, single-mindedly commercial. We think we can approach it differently. We're a city about data, about play, stories, art, activism, and engagement. Our idea is to treat that a little bit differently, tomorrow I think still remains one of the strongest brands ever. I think there's a new steward in town, and he is us. I think that's the beginning of one of the most exciting stories about cities and how we're working with them that I can think of.
Peter spoke at the Entertainment Gathering (EG) Conference which is host to the community of the leading innovators of the worlds most creative industries. Peter spoke on the rebuilding of "Tomorrow" as a brand.
Rebooting tomorrow is such an exciting idea, I think tomorrow is one hell of a brand and personally its one I grew up with. Since inevitably tomorrow is in so many of our futures, I’d like to pose the question; just who is the brand steward of tomorrow anyway? I ask this question because its important we find out how the shots are being called and where we fit in. I’d like to start by going back to where tomorrow was young; nobody sold tomorrow like they did in 1939.
The 1939 World's Fair was branded as the world of tomorrow, and was one of the great acts of packaging. It was the birth of modern design, of consumer culture, the source of the visions of new technologies and the cities we live in today. Like everything else in the industrial era our role in tomorrow was that of consumer. Newspapers had their readers, NBC its viewers. GM’s Futurama was a lovely future with no traffic, plenty of automobiles and lots of order. Cities were supposed to be top-down, planned, radiant; none of that messy organic or emergent stuff. We know how that story turned out. Folks drove to the suburbs, urban renewal didn’t yet exist and we started to run out of gas. There as an economical crisis the government was poor, people got cranky about the government and we all ended up here talking about rebooting tomorrow.
“In the middle of all that, there was a growing sense that perhaps the future was more being done to us than being done by us.”
The great urbanist Jan Jacobs really foresaw this when she wrote in 1961; “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when they’re created by everyone.” How do you handle something as complex as a city and assign it to everybody? That would seem like a completely fantastic question unless you happened to live through the last decade. Since the dawn of social media we’ve created more participatory technology than ever in history. We learned how to crowd source, co-create, collaborate, and write encyclopedia’s bottom-up. As the internet spills out into our streets, as sensors and data become pervasive, as we move into the era of smart cities. The essential question becomes can we architect a future where all of those social media and participatory effects follow us in the physical world and give us a new roll in our cities and in government? Put differently its up to us whether the future will look like Robert Moses with LED’s and sensors or more of what Jan Jacobs had in mind.
Like so many things this movement had its start in the Bay Area. Oakland was the first of many cities to start sharing its municipal data. It was citizens in Oakland analyzing this visual data that noticed the prostitution arrests seem to happen once a month from north to south on San Pablo Ave. Citizens brought it to the attention of the police that crimes couldn’t possibly happen like this, but this is what lazy police word does and the police changed their ways. When Japan was faced with a nuclear meltdown caused by the recent earthquake the government couldn’t or wouldn’t tell the public where the radiation was. Top-down intransigents was topple by data; crowd source, citizen created data. Who would’ve thought that something like data would be such an instigator?