Big Data show goes live

Radio presenter Kim Hill to chair discussions this month on the National Library's Big Data exhibition

A dedicated website and a series of discussion events is being arranged to follow up on the National Library’s Big Data exhibition.

To be facilitated by radio presenter Kim Hill, the discussions to be held in Wellington between February 14 and April 3 will cover a range of themes from the exhibition. These include the relationship between space (pure geography) and place (the emotional attachment to a location); the move towards an increasingly “sentient” digital infrastructure using electronics to detect and adjust features of our environment; resilient cities; the relevance of gradual and abrupt or “punctuated” change to humanity’s progress, and the present generation’s experience of growing up in a digital world.

Material for the website and discussion programme and a potential schools programme is currently being prepared, says curator Richard Simpson.

The brief is to “push into new ground and to be provocative”, he says.

The exhibition attempts to cover all the above themes and more, and Simpson acknowledges it may seem rather eclectic. A pervasive theme is the extension of human senses by technology, with photography from the far reaches of the universe and more local images using a range of wavelengths of radiation and different scales of magnification to reveal new information in objects that seem familiar.

The European colonisation of New Zealand provides a classic example of “punctuated” change, Simpson says; the colonisers were trying to modify the landscape into a “Little England”, and frequently succeeded after a fashion, sometimes with detrimental results.

As we move into an age sometimes called the Anthropocene, where human activities have a significant impact on the Earth’s ecosystems, we risk making similar mistakes, he says. The availability of huge volumes of environmental data may result in us furthering or, more optimistically, mitigating, this damage.

As our knowledge is enriched by data from global and extraterrestrial sensors, a greater choice of solutions becomes available, he says.

Some aspects of the exhibition, such as the prediction that farming could return to the hills around Wellington, might seem to pursue an overly “green” ideology, he acknowledges, but an important consequence of increasing scientific knowledge is the opportunity it presents for “better stewardship of the planet.”

“I am not opposed to motorways,” Simpson says.

“Big Data” was unable to include all the material Simpson and co-workers wanted to include. Some desired exhibits proved unavailable at reasonable cost, for example. Simpson agrees it would have been preferable to have a display of behavioural data more locally relevant than the exhibit on shopping patterns in Spain, but the Spanish display was provided free of charge by Carlo Ratti, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sensable [sic] City laboratory.

Another potential exhibit, a Maori eel trap, would have emphasised the similarity between its curved surfaces composed of polygons, and similar structures used for digital modelling of complex surfaces today, Simpson says, but in the event, the eel-trap was so big it would have unreasonably dominated the limited space.

A striking feature of the image of future Wellington in the exhibition is the shielding of buildings from harsher solar radiation and other environmental effects, using transparent domes (known as Voronoi surfaces) built from polygons.

Much of the exhibition deals with the translation of real objects to digital form and vice-versa – as Simpson puts it, the relationship between the atom, the photon (light and other radiation) and the bit. Behind those relationships is the necessary involvement of the electrons that ultimately power almost all digital equipment.

With that in mind a centrepiece of the exhibition is a vanadium redox (reduction-oxidation) battery, the first seen in New Zealand. This technology provides unprecedentedly long-lived storage of electrical charge. By comparison, the popular technologies of today, such as the lithium-ion battery, leak charge and go flat in a relatively short time, even when not supplying power.

Like much technology in its early stage, however, the vanadium battery is massive, making it impracticable at present for some uses, such as electric vehicles.

The battery exhibit is accompanied by flasks of colourful vanadium compounds illustrating the different electron states of this versatile element, which are the basis of the battery’s operation.

The vanadium redox process is used in nature by sea-squirts, emphasising, Simpson says, the value of biological study to technological discovery.

The Big Data exhibition is being held at the National Library in Wellington’s Molesworth Street until April 30.

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