IBM Puts On A Big Data Viz Show, Streaming Real-Time Data About NYC

IBM's giant LED screens, streaming real-time data at Lincoln Center, are both beautiful and terrifying. Yikes! Is that really the level of particulates in the air?

Ever since Diller Scofido & Renfro unveiled their sexy new rehab of Lincoln Center, the place has been a magnet for surprising design: Wet’s frisky fountain, Fashion Week’s footwear fetishists, the bizarre spectacle of super-slow dancers Eiko + Koma emerging like wraiths from the reflecting pool.

But it was still surprising to wander down Broadway late last week and find a 123 x 12 foot digital wall sloping down below street level displaying what looked like a bathtub’s worth of blue LED bubbles draining into the parking garage.

That’s but one image that sparkles across this massive screen, mounted in conjunction with an exhibit celebrating IBM’s 100th anniversary, which visualizes, in real time, the live data streaming from the systems surrounding the exhibit, from traffic on Broadway, to solar energy, to credit card fraud, to air quality--to the amount of water that is systematically leaking from New York’s aqueduct system.

The free exhibit will run through Oct. 23, will the goal of showcasing the potential of science and information technology to make the world work better.

This is the largest public exposition that IBM has done since the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, says Lee Green, the exhibit’s designer. Charles and Ray Eames were instrumental in that exhibit, and their influence, he says, is still significant in this display.

“A lot of what we’ve done here was inspired by the Eameses,” says Green. “We wanted to understand the way the Eameses thought about converting complexity into something that’s approachable. They felt that if you were going to create something appealing, it had to have an intellectual, a sensory, and an emotional component.“

The exhibit itself has three unique experiential aspects: the data wall, a film about humankind’s quest for progress, and an interactive experience where viewers can poke a forest of touch screens to learn more about everything from weather prediction algorithms to virus spread simulations.

The data wall is particularly intriguing, since it uses things like cameras mounted atop Avery Fisher Hall to capture data about the traffic at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus, a confusing overlap of streets where cabs dart across lanes in front of buses, and dowagers try to navigate six lanes with maddeningly timed stop lights while pushing walkers to the opera. How does it look on the screen? Like a gorgeous yellow snake, twisting in and around itself, then lengthening out into a placid stream before snarling up again.

The data on particulate matter in the air is fairly alarming; it reminded me of the daily scum I would find on top of the dog’s water dish when I had an apartment overlooking Lincoln Center Plaza, and made me fear for my lungs.

The 12-minute free film, which runs approximately every 40 minutes, and for which you need tickets, is shown on 40 tall screens. It’s a lively narrative meant to show how data mining can make cities better, illustrated with a kaleidoscope of images.

Once the film is over, the screens become interactive displays ranged around the topics of seeing, understanding, believing, mapping, and acting. Some of these are more intriguing than others. For example, the painstakingly drawn map of the cases of cholera during the devastating outbreak in London in 1803--which ultimately led to the discovery of a contaminated water pump as the source--contrasted with data on the human genome, and a discussion of personalized medicine is a walloping reminder of how far we’ve come in using data to solve problems.

Short films by various data users like Bill Bratton of the NYPD and Glenn Lowry of MOMA seem static by comparison.

“The Eameses always talked about the challenge of designing something that would appeal to the minds of the young and curious but not so simplified that it can’t still be meaningful and relevant for someone who has expertise in the topic,” Green says.

If the Eameses had been hanging around Lincoln Square on Saturday, watching a toddler press his nose to the blue bubbles on the LED screen, and a gaggle of teenagers navigate touch screens to learn about how Chinese dragon jars from 132 A.D. predicted earthquakes, they would likely have given Green and his team a thumbs-up.

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