Living in Data
A story-driven, vividly illustrated, people-centered exploration of our current and future relationship with data.
In the fall of 2009, Jer Thorp wrote a pair of algorithms to place nearly 3,000 names on the 9/11 memorial in Manhattan in such a layout that 'meaningful adjacencies' – siblings, mothers and daughters, business partners, co-workers – would be etched into the bronze in close proximity. Unbeknown to him, a team of financial analysts also tackled the layout problem. Their solution allowed 93 per cent of the names to be near their loved ones. Thorp’s solution worked for 99.99 per cent of them.
Thorp was able to achieve this because he considered the data person-by-person, and considered the memorial’s concrete, real-world characteristics. He solved a data problem by honouring the people from whom the data came, as well as the world in which that data would live. As Thorp shows in Living in Data, thinking about data in a human context not only makes us into better problem solvers but also builds a healthier relationship between us and our data – one that puts well-being front and centre.
There is a path forward beyond the extractive, impersonal nature of the current 'big data' era, and in his book Thorp doesn’t simply tell readers about it: he shows them what it’s like – through his work with The New York Times, the Library of Congress, and citizens of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, Manchester, and St Louis, Missouri – to actually walk down it.