The Don of Data
When talking, he uses his hands, produces uncommon sounds and doodles mechanically. It all happens in his head. Jer Thorp hates putting a label on what he does: artist, programmer, designer, researcher; he is a little bit of each and not quite any of them all at the same time. What he does, in his own words, is "experimental weird stuff."
Thorp’s work lies somewhere at the intersection of science, art, and design. His main material is data. He transforms information sets and series of numbers into something comprehensible and artistic. In geek lingo: data visualization.
When we first met, Thorp, thirty-eight, was wearing jeans, a grey t-shirt with holes in it and a beanie hat. His art studio, in the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown, exudes the same kind of artistic mess: wires coming out of containers, shelves with Post-it-labeled boxes, Plexiglas hanging from the ceiling and a red table in the middle of the room. The place looks like a work in progress.
If you have not heard of Thorp, you may have stumbled upon his project Cascade, an electronic tool designed to visualize the influence of social media, which he helped build while at The New York Times R&D Lab. This algorithm shows how a single post is shared around the Internet, by whom and when. It displays the results in an animated timeline with colored squares to symbolize every share on social media and lines explaining which events are related to another. Cascade was produced by The New York Times Labs, a project devoted to exploring how the production and consumption of media is changing and will develop in the future. Thorp was invited to collaborate with the project in 2010; what started as a four-month experiment turned into a more-than-two-year "Artist Residency" that lasted until December.
When that was over, Thorp started his own company with Mark Hansen, a “datajournalist,” and Ben Rubin, a media artist. Their Office of Creative Research (OCR) is a new kind of R&D lab. Thorp says it's a place inspired by "a media arts practice as much as a more regular research practice." The firm is hired by museums, companies, public offices and other outlets. After gathering the data they need (numbers, places, tweets, etc...), they make sense of it and find a way to display it visually, in a user-friendly way. The product of that research is featured in various ways, from open-source code, to art installations, papers, websites, presentations, and many other mediums.
What defines OCR is the multiplicity of projects they run. For example, right now they are concentrating on everything from a visualization of earning conference call reports for Bloomberg BusinessWeek to a project focused on the online ad placement ecosystem. When you're using the web, every time an ad pops up on your computer, it is the result of a series of requests from servers to servers, analyzing what would be the most relevant ad to throw at you. Thorp is building a visualization to explain the behind-the-scenes process. "It sounds boring, but it is not!” he promises.
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Thorp started learning how to code rather late. He remembers the first computers his father brought home, an IBM XT and a while later, a Macintosh Plus—vintage machines that introduced him to a whole new world. He studied genetics during his (almost) four years of college in Vancouver—dropping out six months before graduation. He became a programmer almost by accident, learning the basics by himself in a weekend with free trial software.
His first job was as a Flash producer with a Canadian dotcom company called Bluezone. He lived in a “bubble” for two years: good job, good money, good parties. Along with many of his fellow employees, he was laid off on 9/11. After that he freelanced as a developer for big companies. On the side, he started building things on his own, “trees,” as he calls them, trying to figure out, visualize, and represent systems. His day job was getting boring, and one morning he asked himself, "Why am I building banner ads for banks?"
After quitting, he briefly tried to make it as an artist, but it did not work out. He also worked in an aquarium and started a rock band. At the same time, he had fun doodling and designing what would become a discipline in itself: data visualization. One of his sketches caught the attention of Nick Bilton, technology columnist at The New York Times, who invited him to the paper’s R&D Labs. "And when someone offers you a job at The New York Times,” says Thorp. “You take it." He moved to New York and hasn't left since.
What makes Thorp unique is his ability to see the big picture about data: he grasps it, sees it in his mind and knows how to program it to make it understandable. Ben Rubin, co-founder of OCR, remembers the first time he met Thorp. He looked like "a really smart, thoughtful pirate,” says Rubin. “The combination of a brilliant programmer, designer and broad thinker." One of his best qualities, says Rubin, is his ability to "see what is embedded in the system." Rubin says that working with Thorp is like "playing music with a brilliant improviser. His sense of design is incredible, as is his sense of storytelling."
Thorp says the job requires him to be a "low level expert" in everything. As he works in different fields, he has to figure them out first. "I get myself into a subject, deep enough to understand it, but I don’t have to commit to it," he says. Since most of his work is experimental, he is always exploring new territories. His inspirations range from biology—he says he has an "obsession with organic forms"–to fiction. He reads six to eight books a month, but does not follow a lot of blogs and feels conflicted about Twitter, even though he is quite active on his account @blprnt. He says he rarely looks at other people’s work, in order to keep his perspective fresh.
Now living in a Manhattan-view loft in the trendy, tech company-heavy Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO, Thorp describes New York as "unique, full of smart and skilled people from different specialties and backgrounds." Like many before him, he fell in love with the city from the first moment he stepped off the plane. He admires how supportive New York is towards the arts, unlike his hometown of Vancouver. "Jeff Wall, one of the most famous contemporary artists, is from Vancouver, and nobody knows him,” laments Thorp. “But if you walk up to people, they could name you five reality TV actors that are from Vancouver".
One of the ongoing projects that had made him feel more connected to New York is a collaboration with the 9/11 Memorial Museum that opened in September 2011. It includes an algorithm he built to determine the placement of names around the 9/11 Memorial pools. The families of the victims had many diverse requests regarding how the names should be arranged. Ultimately, names had to be put together based on people’s relationships: brothers and sisters together, friends next to friends, husbands and wives, colleagues together, etc... Also, the architects had requirements regarding the structure of the memorial, so Thorp was hired to take into account all those parameters—technical and human—and find the perfect way to display the names of the victims.
That is precisely what drives him: to find "where data intersects with humans." Almost all of his projects are human-oriented, from a 3D-animated globe with bouncing colored dots that are added every time anyone tweets "Good Morning," to an app that memorizes the location of your phone and shows it to you on a map.
Yet he is hesitant about the extent to which data should overlap with commerce. In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Thorp asserts that "Big Data is not the New Oil," meaning that data should not be a source of profits for marketers and ad execs. On the contrary, Thorp wants to use the metaphor to encourage a broader debate about what might happen if we're not careful with it. For example, we have to prevent "data spills"—the possibility that with data stored on many disparate websites, clouds and servers, we are facing the risk of large amounts of data being leaked. He also warns about “dangerous data drilling practices,” advocating extreme care in how companies and institutions obtain personal data.
Thorp does not see this viewpoint as conflicting with his own mission to make “data more human,” so that people can understand it and ultimately make it their own. As his self-proclaimed motto goes, "Let the data speak for itself." And if you can’t hear it, Jer Thorp is on hand to show you what it’s saying.
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Laure Nouraout, born and raised in Paris, arrived in New York six months ago. She is now a correspondent for French media.
Emon Hassan, Narratively's Director of Video & Multimedia, is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer. He is also a contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.