Data Visualization, Inspired by ... Jack Kerouac

One artist is putting the humanity back in data -- with a little help from literature.
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"The room would be good enough for the time she had to stay" (Jer Thorpe/Flickr)

Let's say you have access to a dataset of all the hotels in the world -- or, at least, a lot of the world's hotels. Say you have geographical information about those hotels, which means that you can easily overlay their coordinates on a map. Which means in turn that you can create a visualization of the bulk of the world's hotels -- with the majority of them in the United States and Europe, and a smattering across Asia. Your map would offer a striking proxy not only of the concentrations of hotels across the world, but also of the concentrations of wealth and privilege. 

It would likely look like this:

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Jer Thorp/Flickr

So that hotel map, if you could make it, would be a good piece of journalism. But it wouldn't necessarily be a good piece of art. It would not be, all in all, that interesting.

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Jer Thorp is a data visualization artist who thinks about -- and purposely blurs -- the lines between information and beauty. He wrestles with a problem that is cutting-edge and extremely old at the same time: how to make information not just revealing, but also alluring. Thorp thinks about converting information into art. 

During a panel about data visualization at the Aspen Ideas Festival this afternoon, Thorp walked the crowd through the thinking that informed one of his latest projects: a, yep, visualization of world hotels. Yet Thorp found a way to convert his data set into art. 

It involved Jack Kerouac.  

Thorp started with a dataset of about 700,000 hotels -- which isn't quite every hotel in the world, but comes close. He then wrestled with a question: what exactly do you do with that dataset? How do you make some sort of sense of it, helping the data to shed its bigness? The hotel isn't just a building or a spot on a map, Thorp pointed out. "It's a lived system. We experience it all the time." So how do you visualize networks of hotels in way that pays tribute to that dynamism -- in a way that treats them not just as solid facts, but as a fluid system? 

"I took some insight from this sketch that I found online," Thorp said -- "Jack Kerouac's sketch, a map of the story On the Road. And I thought maybe an interesting way to run through the system of 700,000 hotels would be to imagine if characters from famous literature were to go and make their travels today." 

So if, say, Dolores Haze were traveling -- as she and Humbert do throughout the novel that bears her nickname  -- what would her route look like? If we mapped the path the pair takes through the book onto a contemporary map ... where would they find their lodging? As Thorp put it: "What hotels would they be staying in? How expensive would they be? What would they look like?"

To answer those questions -- and to present them for others -- Thorp and his team layered data upon data, fleshing out the geographical information about the hotels with other datasets: images, website reviews, nightly rates, that kind of thing. The result was a piece in Grand Hotel, an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery that explores the evolution of the hotel from a utilitarian structure to a culture institution. "We have this combination of collages and photographs," Thorp said. "We have pieces of language of the reviews of those hotels. We have the prices of those hotels."

And then they cross-referenced those data points against the routes taken in, say, Lolita, and Lawrence of Arabia, and The Sun Also Rises -- and the text from those tales. 

So "instead of data visualization," Thorp said, the project "is in some ways a data narrative." It explains, but it also relates. It intrigues. It compels. And "it allows us to unpack that dataset in a way which I feel is a lot more human."

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Jer Thorpe/Flickr
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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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