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A stock market odyssey: stargazers feel the power of big data

Image shows multiwavelength composite of Messier 81, a nearby galaxy located in the constellation Ursa Major, one of the first images from the Spitzer Telescope released by NASA on December 18, 2003. The new Spitzer, which looks at the cosmos with infrared detectors, has lifted the dust veils from newborn stars and a bumptious comet, and revealed the detail in the spiral arms of a neighboring galazy. Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which takes pictures of the universe from high in Earth orbit, Spitzer makes its observations as it trails behind Earth as our planet circles the sun. ??? USE ONLY - RTXMCAD

Imagine if you could display the world of real time financial transactions in the form of stars and galaxies inside a planetarium. Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway, creators of “Black Shoals; Dark Matter” Stock Market Planetarium, did just that.

In Black Shoals, each traded company is represented by a star, flickering and glowing as shares are traded. The stars slowly drift in response to the complex currents of the market, while outlining shapes of different industries and the huge multinational conglomerates like the signs of the zodiac.

We spoke to Lise and Joshua about their creative inspirations as well as their partnership with Thomson Reuters for this multimedia installation, which is one of the main features of the Big Bang Data exhibition at London’s Somerset House until March 20.

Read the interview below with Black Shoals creators Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway:

What was the inspiration behind Black Shoals and why the focus on the financial markets?

We made the first iteration of Black Shoals in the late nineties — the dot-com era — when there was an increasing amount of popular writing about the seemingly magical power of the market to generate money.

Somerset House Trust

Money seemed to be becoming a more and more self referential system of symbols and less and less connected to the “real world”.

For us, the project became a long process of trying to understand a whole cluster of related ideas so we don’t think of it as being solely about the financial markets, although that’s obviously the origin and central focus.

How has the data supplied by Thomson Reuters Elektron helped to visualize the project?

The project would be pretty much impossible without the cooperation of Thomson Reuters. The first version of Black Shoals (commissioned for Tate Britain in 2000) worked with the previous Reuters API which, at the time, required a dedicated leased line connection or a satellite dish on the roof of the gallery.

Somerset House Trust


When we were planning this new version, we checked out some of the new competitors in the field but none of them were able to deliver the amazing global infrastructure and easy to use APIs.

The Thomson Reuters staff have been incredibly helpful organizing the complicated process of obtaining permissions for all of the exchanges — they took the unusual nature of the project in their stride.

What do you believe are the key elements in ‘making big data make sense’?

Hopefully, you get a very immediate sense of the amount of data that has been gathered from around the world focused in the room. If you look up at the flickering stars, you’re aware that you are looking at a good proportion of all the money in the world moving around.

We’re interested in the double effect this has. There’s a feeling of power accompanied by a vertiginous sense of powerlessness when confronted by such overwhelming amounts of information.

Representations of big data tend to have this seductive quality, which can make us feel powerful and meaningless at the same time, and one needs to guard against that because it can be powerfully manipulative.

The Big Bang Data event runs until March 20, 2016. #BigBangData.

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