Co.Design

New Museum Uses Algorithms To Visualize How 9/11 Still Shapes The World

Timescape, a visualization within the National September 11 Memorial Museum, uses algorithms to show the unfolding aftermath of the terrorist attacks through news.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, forever changed the course of world history. More than a decade later, the scope of their impact is still evolving. American troops are still stationed in Afghanistan. Ground Zero workers are still filing for compensation for 9/11-related illnesses.

How exactly to incorporate this unfolding aftermath of the event is one of the major challenges facing the National September 11 Memorial Museum, which opens to the public on May 21. Local Projects, the studio behind the museum's exhibit design (and the designers of the Ground Zero memorial's thoughtful naming scheme), approached the task algorithmically.

On one concrete wall of the museum's foundation level, located 70 feet below ground, Timescape--a concept by Local Projects in collaboration with Ben Rubin, Mark Hansen, and Jer Thorp*--is a 34-foot-long dynamic video display that charts the impact of 9/11 through news. Algorithms comb through a database of 2 million news articles from sources like the Associated Press, Google News, and LexisNexis to generate timelines with media headlines and photos tracing the evolution of different news events or ideas related to 9/11 since 2001, creating a portrait of the post-9/11 world.

In the piece, starbursts of light visualize the different keywords in the database, showing a count of the exact number of articles the algorithms pull from. Then, the visualization zooms in on just one "event cluster," a group of a few different correlated keywords, like "North American Aerospace Defense Command," "Aircraft," and "Federal Aviation Administration." News headlines pop up along the timeline related to those terms, progressively showing notable items from 2001 to the present day over a period of 80 seconds or so.

"The challenge is to make things graspable and to tell an engaging, meaningful story," Local Projects principal Jake Barton tells Co.Design. "We wanted to focus the design on something that wouldn’t render it overly simply, but would tell the story of both the data and how we were deriving the individual timelines."

Some of the keywords connected by the algorithms are obvious: Osama Bin Laden is linked to Saudi Arabia. Others less so, like the connections between the attacks, the stock exchange, and airline industry revenues. Several airlines declared bankruptcy after 9/11, and the U.S. airline industry lost $55 billion in the subsequent decade. "They correlate together different words that are seemingly unconnected, but when put together, they start to deliver on different larger thematic evolutions," Barton says of the timelines.

Dozens of these event cluster timelines create an infinite loop of data gleaned from media. The ever-changing nature of the installation anchors the museum in both past and present, allowing it the flexibility to adapt the lens through which it examines the events of 9/11. The news archive is updated every night, so the content changes as history continues to unfold. That creates a dynamic installation that can alter as our understanding of 9/11 and its effects continue to develop.

"We knew from the beginning, when we started the project eight years ago, that 9/11 wasn’t quite current events but definitely wasn’t history. The eventual outcome of the story was undefined," Barton says. "We started thinking, how do we tell that story? How do we accommodate the types of changes and evolutions we know will happen?"

The resulting timescape, Barton says, is a way of "understanding how the things that we’re seeing and feeling and experiencing today were impacted and even shaped by 9/11."

This article has been updated to clarify that the concept for Timescape was developed by Local Projects with Ben Rubin, Mark Hansen, and Jer Thorp.

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