National Geographic Emerging Explorer and data artist Jer Thorp translates unimaginable blurs of information into something we can see, understand, and feel-data made human through visualizations that blend research, art, software, science, and design.
Jer Thorp's award-winning software-based data visualizations and digital art have been featured in publications, websites, and exhibitions worldwide. He co-founded the Office for Creative Research and teaches in New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program.
What do three million lightning strikes look like? Or 2,300 planets? How do you visualize the connections between the 2,982 people who never came home September 11, 2001? Jer Thorp translates unimaginable blurs of information into something we can see, understand, and feel-data made human through visualizations that blend research, art, software, science, and design.
If data visualizations could be explained with words, we wouldn't need them. Light-years beyond bar graphs and pie charts, Thorp's visual depictions interpret data in color, shape, and motion to bring meaning and a new sense of control over information overload.
"Often my work stems from a question in my mind or an interesting data set," says Thorp. "I look at it from as many conceptual and mathematical angles as I can, searching for a pattern. For me, it's a visual way of analyzing a problem. I think in code and build open source software that lets anyone get in the driver's seat and explore."
His project Just Landed took off when he noticed how often friends sent tweets from airports. "An epidemiologist friend and I realized this casual Twitter sharing could be visualized in a useful, real-time model to study how diseases might spread," he says.
A current project translates data from weather sensors pinpointing where up to three million lighting strikes hit the planet each day. "In our new climate-changed world, finding the best way to present this detection data may be very useful in storm prediction and prevention."
When NASA reported the discovery of 2,300 distant planets scattered across the universe, Thorp struggled to make sense of it by creating "Exo." The video representation plots the new planets in 3-D, lets you sort them by size and heat, rotate your view, transition to charts, and interact on multiple screens and planes of motion. NASA likes it so much that the organization featured it on its Kepler Project site.
Inspiration to dig deeper into a subject can strike Thorp at any time. "After reading two different articles about the same topic, I wondered why I liked one so much more than the other," he recalls. "I wrote a simple program that compared how the two authors used words, and instantly revealed that the article I liked was filled with people, while the other had virtually no human characters, just nebulous concepts." His frequently downloaded tool can compare any two texts.
Data visualization can even help bring honor to a senseless tragedy. Architects of the 9/11 Memorial in New York wanted to display names of those killed not alphabetically, but based on relationships. Brother next to brother; coworker next to coworker; passenger next to passenger. Thorp was asked to develop an algorithm to honor 1,400 adjacency requests, reflect myriad connections, and turn a list of names into nearly 3,000 personal stories.
In fact, Thorp believes anyone with a cell phone can bring meaning to data. While Data Artist in Residence at the New York Times, his group built Open Paths, enabling people to donate their location data to help emergency response, the study of disease spread, or other causes that require information about how people move. "This project is a prototype for data philanthropy," he notes. "Your data isn't just a swirling cloud of abstract numbers. It belongs to you, has tremendous value, and can be put to work for good."
Thorp co-founded the Office for Creative Research (OCR) as a resource for cultural institutions, scientists, and organizations facing data challenges as they tackle big problems to effect positive change. The team blends backgrounds in media art, statistics, research, and journalism; creating everything from interactive software to art installations and museum exhibits. "We love nothing more than a really difficult, completely novel problem," Thorp says.
He also teaches data representation at New York University. Student projects range from utilitarian to artistic to scientific to political. One, visualizing the location of every U.S. prison, received attention from legal groups interested in prison rights advocacy. Another, visualizing meat consumption, was featured on both design and food rights blogs.
"We see more information in the first five minutes of our morning than our parents saw in an entire day, or even week," says Thorp. "We're all trying to cope and adapt. If we remember that every piece of data is tethered to the real world, we won't lose the most important perspective of all-the human one."