Visualizing and making sense of big data is in itself a difficult exercise. Successful attempts have been reported on this blog (for instance Jacques Levy’s geographical maps). Visualization can sometimes be so stunning that it can become a piece of Art.
Columbia researchers Laura Kurgan, Eric Cadora, David Reinfurt and Sarah Williams processed data from the US department of Justice and reveal visually some stunning results about incarcerated people.
Presentation of the research project
In a 2006 article, the authors describe the project as follows :
Million-Dollar Blocks’ describes the result of visualizing traditional criminal-justice data with new geographic tools. Million-Dollar Blocks are single-census blocks in inner-city neighbourhoods for which over a million dollars are spent each year to imprison residents from those blocks.
Although incarceration decisions are made individually, one person at a time, when mapped collectively over the course of a year the data reveal patterns, presence and gaps previously hidden from traditional examination. The maps present a new way of understanding the opportunity costs of mass incarceration, concentrating on the residents of particular neighbourhoods. Measured in dollars, and compared against other government expenditure, the data reveals that the prison system is the most important government institution in such neighbourhoods.
The stunning results : maps of sentenced persons concentration
The result of the work of the authors are maps that enable to visualize statistics on incarcerated people in New York, Phoenix, New Orleans, and Wichita.
The most stunning maps are of course those showing the concentration of incarcerated people in certain areas of above cities. Everyone knows that not all areas are alike in terms of criminality; these maps objectively show the scale of this phenomenon. It’s not about large areas. It’s actually about a few blocks.
Another interesting piece of big data regards the costs of incarcerating all these people. From the latter comes the title of the project “million-dollar blocks”. The price tag attached to some blocks is indeed sometimes in excess of $1m
The philosophical question behind Big Data
This project shows that Big Data enables to reveal hidden aspects of our world. Most often used to model and predict individual consumers’ behaviors, Big Data can become a tool to understand the dynamics of larger group of people and the role of the State. As the authors write “the data reveals that the prison system is the most important government institution in such neighbourhoods”. Art is in some way a quest to depict the reality, a quest to depict the truth as seen by the artist. The Columbia University project is a successful attempt to depict visually this reality and go beyond mere figures. This is probably why it can be found in the New-York Museum of Modern Art.
If you want to learn more read the paper below on spatial patterns and this blog post about the visualization of big data.