big data | February 21, 2013

From "Vanity To Utility": Big Data Speaker Jer Thorp Turns Tweets Into Art

You can learn a lot about people in 140 characters or less. Millions of tweets of that length are sent on Twitter every day. Big data speaker Jer Thorp, the former Data Artist in Residence at The New York Times, was curious about would happen if he combined all of the valuable data lingering on the social media site into a massive visualization. What kind of information could he learn about people's lives and the commonalities they share with one another? If you compile all the "Good Morning" tweets that people send on any given day, for example, you can then extrapolate that data to get an idea of how many people wake up at 8 am. To take that idea further, you could also see what part of the world those early-risers were from, and whether more males or females wake up at that hour. As he showed at a recent TED Youth talk, organizing this data in the right way makes it not only interesting, but eye-catching as well.

Twitter is a self-bolstering site where users mainly post what they are doing at a given moment. Or, as Thorp jokes, the users are showing off that they are doing something cooler than you are. "How can we take this vanity and turn it into utility?" Thorp then asked the audience. He decided to focus on tweets that had to do with travel. So, he collected all of the posts that had to do with where people were going (for example: "Just landed in New York!"), matched that up with where they were from (easily found on their profile) and created a dynamic map that showed where and how people were getting around. Although the project could stand alone on aesthetic merit alone, Thorp notes that this kind of data has tremendous potential. Scientists, for example, can use this information to figure out how disease spreads from one place to another. By putting small data sets together, he says that we have the potential to do really exciting things. We can use that data towards solving some of the world's biggest problems.

In Thorp's talks, he shows audiences that data is more than just numbers. It's a very human experience, as the data itself is generated by us and has the potential to dramatically change our lives when harnessed the right way. Thorp lectures at New York University, and has also launched The Office for Creative Research with a group of his peers to study the implications of big data and how we can use them to our advantage.