TED Talk Video: Jer Thorp, The Weight of Data

If you’re into data visualization or information design, you probably know – or at least have seen – the work of Jer Thorp, data artist-in-residence at the New York Times. Now, the TEDx Vancouver talk Thorp gave in November, has finally been uploaded to the TEDx YouTube channel, and we wanted to make sure you didn’t miss it. Thorp’s work is worth studying not only because of the unique and innovative methods he uses to visualize data, but also because of his always-visible goal of telling human stories. Though his work is often interactive visualizations primarily made with Processing, data artists and journalists can learn from his techniques and his approach regardless of what tools or data they use. Thorp starts out his TEDx talk with his childhood and the life-changing experience of getting his first Mac, and moves on to his work, including projects like Cascade, which he developed to enable visualizing how New York Times stories are shared. He also talks briefly about his work on the World Trade Center Memorial project, where he was tasked with placing the names on the memorial, while maintaining an overall structure of associations between the people. It began as an abstract idea from the architect: that the names not be ordered alphabetically, but my more meaningful connections. Family, friends, and coworker’s names are grouped by proximity using an algorithm and tool developed by Thorp. It’s worth learning about the finer details of the project, as the weight and care given to this particular instance of “data visualization” is incredible. Thorp makes a clear case for the power of visualizing data in order to give it meaning and give it, as he puts it, “a human context”. The most poignant moment in the video is when he talks about his OpenPaths project, which emerged from the controversy around the iPhone collecting GPS location data. Thorp shows the power of visualizing this data, and seeing it and making associations to the human stories that emerge. He shows an animation of his own data on a map, moving from place to place. He describes moving to a new big city, and we see the line move. We see him leave his house, go to work, go to lunch, and go back home. We get to see the day he meets his girlfriend, and he shows us the contrast between seeing that day animated on a map, and seeing that same datapoint as latitude and longitude gibberish. That contrast is incredibly important, and it should always remind us one thing:

at the end of the day, the data that we work with, analyze, dissect and create, usually boils down to human stories we’re meant to be telling.

When we make the connections between the two, we can create profound experiences and insights for users, readers, and viewers. If you want to see more about these projects, Thorp discussed them in depth in his Eyeo 2011 talk.

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