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Steve Rosenbaum

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Data Through the Ages

Posted: 10/21/11 06:35 PM ET

At first blush, DATA seems like a relatively recent idea. But after spending time at the THINK exhibit at Lincoln Center, you begin to understand that data isn't something that is created by computers. Rather, it's information made more useful by computers.

The journey into the history of data is eye-opening and amazingly immersive.

The story is told in five chapters: Seeing, Mapping, Understanding, Believing, and Acting.

Seeing begins with the basic five human senses. And then we began to build measurement tools like clocks, and calendars, and microscopes and telescopes. Thought of in that context, you can see how the emergence of cell phones and computer-connected sensors are on a logical continuum of tools that make our world more manageable and digital.

Throughout time, the tools we've had at our disposal to view the world provide the raw data. That data ends up being presented with the current 'mapping' tools of the time. Maps have been around a long time, giving us the tools to turn chaos into order. Maps used to be -- well -- literally maps that gave explorers a way to record and then share what they'd learned about the physical world.

Once we've seen data, and mapped data -- the next phase in seeing both history and the future is understanding. Understanding is more than our human understanding of problems and information, it often has to do with building models. From the physical models to test hypothesis to mathematical calculations to turn information into reproducible algorithms. Computers, of course, make it possible to test far larger and more complex problems.

For visitors to THINK, the concepts of Seeing, Mapping, and Understanding are all concepts that make sense. But then comes belief. As the exhibit says, "Change is easy -- it simply happens." But 'Progress' requires a plan, and a commitment to build toward a conceived future. Skeptics will push back. But data, maps, and persuasive models can point a path toward a future.

And finally -- as we move from seeing our world to believing that we can change the world -- we need to put a plan in motion. The THINK exhibit suggests that the world's problems seem so vast, complex, and unsolvable, that we need to use data, maps and models to understand them and put solutions in motion. It takes teamwork and collaboration to manage complexity .

As one example, they present traffic. Traffic congestion seems like one of those inevitabilities of modern cities, yet once you think about it, how many times have we sat at a traffic light -- while the cross street has a green light and no traffic. Imagine if traffic lights could adjust flow so that they were smart, opening streets as needed, and even shifting the flow of one-way roads to meet the needs of the morning and afternoon crush. Why do traffic lights work the way they do? Because the advent of the traffic light was back in 1868 in London. Mechanical timers that turn lights from red to green with a set pattern. But today, traffic lights could be smart, and aware of both traffic and their surroundings. Traffic lights no longer need to be independent devices, but instead can be part of a traffic system.

The THINK exhibit does a remarkable job of connecting the past to the future. No longer do computers or data seem like new things, rather they are the newest way we are gathering data, recording data, and presenting data. We're getting smarter, with smarter tools. Using these tools, you can see a future that has us living longer, building more sustainable systems, and making our environment safer and cleaner.

Spending time with my thirteen year old son at the THINK exhibit was eye opening for both of us. The story of data through time was well-told and engaging. The immersive screens gave us the opportunity to explore our thoughts about the past and the future, and the sense of opportunity that the exhibit provided was truly inspirational. Yes, we've had the drive to go to the moon, and through science we achieved that. But if we embrace the power of the information explosion we're now experiencing, the data we're gathering can provide us with the data to map new solutions to more complex problems.

You can learn more about the exhibit, and how to visit it here.


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